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SoCalHoops High School News

High School Team Preview:
Sylmar High School--(Nov. 23, 1999)

"We'll probably take some lumps in December, but we should be pretty good by the start of the regular season. But then you've got to play the best to be the best.  And I want us to be the best." --Bort Escoto, Head Coach, Sylmar High School

Over the last few years, we've gotten to know Bort Escoto, perhaps not as well as we'd like, but well enough to know that he's one of the better coaches in the City Section.  In the past two years, Escoto has had one team win the City Section Division (aka 3-A) Championship and last year he took his team to the City Championship quarterfinals, losing to Crenshaw by a single lay-up at the buzzer, on Crenshaw's home court.  "That was a great game," said Escoto. "Thanks a lot for reminding me about that shot at the buzzer," he said, only half jokingly.   "I'd almost put it out of my mind, but getting that close is something you just don't forget. I still feel really bad for Jeremiah (Turner). He was just crushed after that shot."

A missed free throw here, a foul call there, and who knows, maybe Sylmar would have wound up in the finals against Fairfax, Manual or someone else. Any way you look at it, Sylmar was clearly deserving of last year's 6th seed in the tournament. That team featured some great athletes and accomplished players, including Jerry Calzada (6'-2" SG), Jeremiah Turner (6'-7" SF/PF) who is now at Cal Poly Pomona, Joey Youmans (6'-8" C/F), who is now at Cal State LA, George Wrighster (6'-4" SG/PF) who is attending Oregon on a football scholarship, Brandon Jacobs (5'-10" PG), T.K. Reid (6'-0" PG), and Dallas Townsend (6'-4" C/F).   But all of them were seniors last year and they're gone. Likewise, Damien Derrico (6'-4" Sr. SG/SF), a promising player who is a senior this year, also moved away from the area.

The only returning players from last year's team are Chris Slade (6'-0" Jr. SG), and John Valdez (6'-1" Jr. SG), not a bad nucleus upon which to build the next generation of Spartans, but realistically, two returning players does not make a team, and it's like starting over from scratch.  This year it's a whole new ballgame, and last year's results really have no relevance to what you're likely to see this year.  Has Sylmar reloaded?  Possibly.  "We're going to be pretty good," said Escoto.  And with his experience of the last few years, he ought to know.

Bort got his start coaching at Cleveland under Bobby Braswell, who is now the coach at Cal State Northridge.  He was also an assistant coach for several years at Chatsworth under coach Fluker before coming to Sylmar. He's been there for a while now,  long enough to have rebuilt the program from the ground up. "When I got here, the program was pretty much a mess.  We started over, and it's something I've really had fun doing."  He's been assisted for  by Charles White, who's been with him now for 5 years. "I was coaching in youth leagues, and I kept seeing Bort's teams losing," White told us last year. "I figured he couldn't do any worse with my help than he'd been doing without it. We've done ok in the last few years, so we must be doing something right?"

Bort took a lot of heat two summers ago for allowing Gilbert Arenas to play on his summer league team, and for not dispelling rumors which were rampant that Gilbert was going to leave Grant and transfer to Sylmar.  In the long run though, Gilbert ended up staying at Grant which finished last season as the 12th seeded team in the City Section Championship bracket, while Sylmar was more than just respectable without him; they won the East Valley league title and, as noted above, made it to the quarterfinals of the City Championship bracket, seeded as the No. 6 team in the City.   Whether Gilbert transferred might not have made any difference for Sylmar, and in any event, we'll never know.   Still, the rap that Bort took was that he was "recruiting" Gilbert, and given the way things worked out, in our view it was not deserved.  In any event, it's old news.  The real news this year is the guys enrolled now.  

Bort is eager to talk about is the new Sylmar basketball team,  and he's justifiably excited about the prospects for Sylmar in the newly reconfigured Valley Mission League, which has Kennedy, Monroe, Reseda, Sylmar, Van Nuys and San Fernando. "I think we'll be pretty good.  In fact, I think we're loaded with talent," said Escoto.  No more 3-A or 4-A, just a completely reconfigured league alignment throughout the City, and the plan, as we understand it is to take the top two teams in each league (including Magnet) and have them compete for the City Section Finals. If things work out that way (and we're not at all sure that this will in fact be the way it's done), we're about as certain as anyone can be right now that Sylmar will still be there when the dust settles in mid-February.

" I think we're not only as good as any of the teams in our league, perhaps one of the best teams in the Valley, but we can also compete with any of the City Section teams," Bort told us.  "This is the first year I can remember in a long time where the City Section has been as wide open as it seems to be this year.  Once you get past Fairfax, and possibly Crenshaw or Westchester, and maybe a handful of others, I think almost any team can beat any other team on a given night. It's just like the NFL, maybe we've all achieved parity."  And Bort is probably correct in that assessment of the spreading of talent all over the City; no single team, with the exception of Fairfax really seems to have an overwhelming or concentrated pool of talent, and just about any team, in our view, might be capable of winning a City Section Championship.  Well, not just any team. . . the title will still probably run through Fairfax this year.  But it's going to be fun watching others try.

Bort realizes that in order to beat some of those teams this year, his guys will have to really step up their level of play and learn what they'll need to do when the playoffs come around.  And that's why Bort has elected to schedule consecutive contests with Crenshaw this year and next year. "Really, if you want to be the best, you have to play the best, and we're going to take on anyone and everyone we can. I don't think we're 'overscheduling.'  Sure we may lose some games, but if we're going to do well in playoffs, we have to know what a playoff environment is like, what it's like to go into the pressure cooker of a gym,  like Crenshaw's home court.   I want to play them at home. I'll play anyone, " Escoto said. 

That desire to play the best is also why Escoto has scheduled his team to play in events like the Fresno BCW "Battle of the Central Valley" Tournament taking place at Clovis West and Buchannan High Schools in Fresno from December 1-4,  where they'll be in the same pool as D-I State Champion Oakland Fremont, Palisades, and Edison Fresno. It's also why Bort has the team entered in this year's Reebok Las Vegas Holiday Prep Classic from December 18-22 where they'll play in the "Silver Cup" Tournament against teams like Bakersfield, St. Mary's of Phoenix, Gardena Serra, Newbury Park,  Cajon, Upper St. Clair (PA), South Laurel (KY), and other tough teams.  "Vegas is great," Escoto explained, "because it's like a playoff atmosphere, and where else can you see so many great teams all in one place?"

This is a young team, but Bort has a few surprises for the rest of the City Section, in addition to the players we knew about from last year's team and from summer competition.  Here's the roster for 1999-2000: 

Chris Slade 6'-0" Jr. SG
George O'Garra 6'-6 Jr. C
John Valdez 6'-1" Jr. SG
Brandon Robinson 6'-3" Jr. SG/SF
Jeff Morse 6'-5" So. C
Brandon Lasley 6'-5" Jr. PF/C
Terrell Massey 6'-0" Jr. SG
Eddie Gomez 6'-6" Sr. PF/C
Ernest Williams 6'-3" Jr. PG/SG/SF/PF
Alfredo Tovar 5'-7" So. PG
Jason Adams 6'-0" Jr. PG

This is mostly a team of new players, relative unknowns, who will quickly become something more than just anonymous.  This is a pretty good team and they'll compete.  In the backcourt, the point position is probably Sylmar youngest and perhaps least experienced.  Still, the Spartans will have two serviceable point guards capable of running the offense in Jason Adams and Alfredo Tovar.   Bort describes Adams as a "TK Reid-type of point guard," which means that he's a great penetrator with an excellent handle who needs to work on his outside jumper. Shooting is not his strong suit, but he's a strong ballhandler who can do things a lot of other guards can't, like break a press with the dribble.  Alfredo will likely be the backup point guard, and he's extremely quick and has good hands, is a nice passer and generally doesn't make many mistakes on the floor.

At the two, look for John Valdez, who is also the starting quarterback on Sylmar's football team. "He could be a huge recruit," says Escoto. "I think he's one of the two best guards in LA right now, and he has one of the best strokes ever. In fact, I haven't seen a guard who can shoot better than he can." Unfortunately though, Valdez isn't getting any recruiting right now, but all of that could change if Valdez has the kind of season that Escoto expects he can. Backing up Valdez will be Chris Slade, a third year varsity player who is also an excellent shooter with a good handle, and Terrell Massey, a good athlete whose real specialty will be to act as a defensive stopper.

Starting out on the wing, will be Brandon Robinson, who recently transferred in to Sylmar from Texas. We've seen Brandon a lot this fall during some of the Rockfish workouts at Hollywood High and LA City College, and he's an athletic scorer, who can shoot the mid-range jumper, run the floor and slash to the hole, and best of all, he has the real potential to be a college player in the future. "Brandon is very athletic and he'll really help us this year at the wing and rebounding under the boards," Escoto said. "He could turn out to be a very special player."    He'll be joined by another starter, Ernest Williams, whom Escoto says, will "play all five positions this year."  Williams is a good athlete, not a great shooter but a scorer, someone who finds a way to get to the basket. "He's incredibly hard working, and my intention right now is to start him, I'm just not sure where, because he really can play just about any position on the floor," Escoto told us.  Backing up Ernest and Brandon will be Eddie Gomez, a football player who will also sometimes play the post.  Bort was hesitant to say anything about Gomez until the season gets underway, except that "he's a football player, and has never really played basketball before. But I'm certain he'll be pretty good."

Also in the forward spot, and occasionally at the high post will be Brandon Lasley, a very athletic, strong rebounder, with good post moves. Bort told us he's "a lot like Jeremiah Turner," but without Jeremiah's ball handling skills, at least for now, which means that he's a great defender, a bit slender,   cat-like quick, who can slash to the hole from a wing or step out and shoot it off the catch and release.

In the post will be two players and either of them could,   and possibly both will, start. George O'Garra is a returning varsity player who has developed some post moves and has improved his footwork and strength tremendously over the summer.  "He's really improving and has a chance to really do something," said Bort. "I think he's definitely a potential Division I player.  While we listed him on the roster, he couldn't play last year, because he transferred from one magnet to another magnet, which is another of those City Section rules that's now been changed," said Escoto.  The other player is the one that Bort is calling "Sylmar's secret weapon":  Jeff Morse. Jeff is a sort of wide-body type, a big player with soft hands and a great touch both inside and who can step out to the short corner and hit the shot. "He's like Rafael Berumen," said Bort. "He's very young but has the most polished post moves of just about any high school player I've ever seen.  And the most amazing thing is that he tells me he's never played before, so he's a real natural.  This kid has got great, and I mean, great footwork: He'll do a turnaround, drop step off the glass like someone who's been doing it for years, and then he'll step out and hit a three pointer, just like Rafael used to do for Simi," Bort said.  "He's obviously gotten some coaching somewhere, or he's just really good.   And he's still going to grow from what I hear," Bort said. "He's about 6'-5" right now, and was 6'-2" as a freshman, and his father is 6'-9" or 6'-10".  And the most amazing thing," Escoto said, "is that he didn't even play as a freshman because he didn't know how good he was.  I think he's going to surprise a lot of people." Possibly in the same way that Sylmar will surprise a lot of people. 

Is Sylmar going to become the "Crenshaw of the Valley", able to reload year after year, still turning out winning teams after losing whole teams to graduation?  "I hope so," says Escoto. "I think we could be pretty good this year, and that's going to be fun, especially this year, when the City Section is so wide open."

In addition to the BCW Fresno Tournament and the Las Vegas Reebok Classic, Sylmar will also be playing in the Hart tournament against teams like Glendale, SOCES, Hart, Alemany, Cleveland and Beverly Hills.

Here's the full league schedule for the 1999-2000 season, at least the one that the City Section sent us:

Wednesday, January 12  Reseda  @ Sylmar 2:30/4:00
Friday, January 14  Van Nuys @ Sylmar 5:30/7:00
Wednesday, January 19  Sylmar  @ Kennedy  2:30/4:00
Friday, January 21  San Fernando @ Sylmar 5:30/7:00
Wednesday, January 26  Sylmar @ Monroe  2:30/4:00
Friday, January 28  Sylmar @ Reseda  5:30/7:00
Wednesday, February 2  Sylmar @ Van Nuys  2:30/4:00
Friday, February 4  Kennedy @ Sylmar  5:30/7:00
Wednesday, February 9  Sylmar @ San Fernando  2:30/4:00
Friday, February 11  Monroe  @ Sylmar  5:30/7:00 

Escoto thinks the league realignment this year is probably a "slight improvement" over the prior arrangement, which had "conferences" and "leagues." "We'll have to see whether it's really better though. Right now I think we're in a slightly better place, but the competition should be about the same for us. Our biggest competition I think will come from San Fernando, but then you never know until it happens."

Asked who he thought was the most talented team in City Section in the Valley region, Bort didn't hesitate a minute to say, "Cleveland. Really, they are just loaded, but right now they are in turmoil, with one of the coaches quitting and players not really gelling together. It will be interesting to see what happens.  But I definitely think that they have the most pure, raw talent of any team in the Valley."

"We won't do well in December," said Escoto. "Maybe I did over-scheduled somewhat, but to get tougher, we need to see the big time programs, and with not many seniors, we need to build for next year," Escoto reasoned. "I want my players to get used to it." Whether they'll get used to it fast enough and still be among the top teams in the City by mid-February is going to be the big question, and it's one that only Sylmar can answer after a full season.   Still, it's going to be fun watching them try.

 The Swish Award
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