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SoCalHoops High School News

High School Team Preview:
Artesia Lakewood--(Oct. 19, 1999)

"Last year we had a lot of fun. Sometimes we put too much pressure on ourselves, but I have no regrets. Maybe a lot of disappointment about the fact that Jason and the rest of the guys didn't get the State Championships that they deserved, but I certainly have no misgivings about how hard they played and how great we were.  I think we could be just as good, certainly in different ways, but we are still a very good team."-- Wayne Merino, Head Coach, Artesia HS

In the 1998-99 season, Artesia was, not surprisingly the Suburban League Champs, and the Southern Section D-IAA Champs. Like the year before (97-98), their run to the State finals in Sacramento came up one game short. In 98-99, it was an overtime loss to Mater Dei in San Diego at the Southern Regional Finals.  In 97-98, Artesia lost in the State Regional Finals by one point to Westchester, sending the Comets and David Bluthenthal (USC), Brandon Granville (USC), Tony Bland (Syracuse) and the rest of a great team to the State Championship.  Both seasons had everyone asking   "what if.":  Last season, the "what if" involved Jason Kapono's ankle injury in the Southern Regional semifinal game against Glendora, and in our view, had Kapono been healthy and been able to play the entirety of the game against Mater Dei, Artesia would likely have met their goal of getting to the finals in D-I and winning.   But that's not what happened, and instead Mater Dei won, and they made the trip to the Arco Arena in Sacramento.

But then Artesia has nothing to be ashamed of either;   there's no shame or regret for anyone connected with a program which is consistently within the top four teams in the entire State of California year in and year out.  Merino has accomplished some truly remarkable things over the years, including another Southern Section title last year over Long Beach Poly in the SS Final at the Pond.  Merino is in his 13th year at Artesia,  and prior to that he coached at Mira Costa, Fountain Valley, and as an assistant at Mater Dei.   His overall record is now 318-58, and at Artesia, he's won 12 league titles in those 13 years, and 3 state titles in D-II, with an overall record of 3-1 in the State Finals.   Wayne is now tied with Russell Otis and Gary McKnight, who have also won 3 State Titles each (Admittedly none of them is even close to Willie West, who has 8).

Wayne told SoCalHoops he is not certain whether Artesia will play in D-IAA again this season or in D-IIA:   "It all depends what the rules are going to be this year, and we haven't heard yet from the CIF." [under prior CIF rules, a team jumping up from their enrollment-based division is required to play at the highest division level, i.e., 1-AA] Merino added, "It also depends a lot on what some other top schools do this year, but then we really won't know for a while.  We'd like to play D-I, but then we'll just have to wait and see."   If the Pioneers do end up playing Division IAA  they'll have to likely deal with most of last year's top teams in the division, including Long Beach Poly, Rancho Bernardo, San Bernardino Pacific, El Toro, Los Al, Eisenhower, Upland, Ayala, Simi Valley, Etiwanda, Long Beach Jordan, Rowland, Fontana, and perhaps even Glendora, which will be without Casey Jacobsen but will still have plenty of good talent. But time will tell which division they'll be in; still they'll have to get through their league, and while they are the prohibitive favorites again this season, their league (Suburban) does feature some excellent competition, particularly from Mayfair which features Josh Childress (6'-5" Jr. SG/SF) perhaps the top-rated wing player on the West Coast.

Artesia is one of those nearly year-round programs.   During the "off-season" Merino keeps the team together during the summer, playing as "QBL--Quality Basketball Lakewood", and they play in most of the high level exposure tournaments, consistently finishing among the elite teams at events such as the adidas Las Vegas Big Time, the Double Pump Best of Summer, and in the spring and fall at events like the Long Beach Fall Hoops Classic.  The only time Merino will not play his team is during the balance of  September during the remainder of the NCAA open exposure period before the regular high school season begins.  "We play more games than some NBA teams from the start of the season until the end of the summer with the last games in the beginning of September.  The guys need the rest, they need to rebuild and rest.  That's more important than appearing in another tournament," Merino told us earlier this fall.

As for returning players, while this is a fairly young team still, only three players do not return (Marcus Crane (6'-3" Jr. SG) has transferred to Ocean View, and Jason Kapono and Aaron Hamilton have both graduated),  and the rest of the team returns along with some other newcomers.  The team did have the services, briefly, of  Sam Nadeau (6'-7" Sr. SG/SF) from the East, but he never actually played a regular season game with the Pioneers, and he's now transferred back to a school in New Jersey.    Here's the roster:  

Aaron Aska 5'-10" Sr. G
Amaury Fernandez 6'-9" Jr. PF
Ryan Reyes 6'-3" Jr. SG
Tony Roberts 6'-3" Jr. SG
Ryan Mueiller 6'-7" So. F
Jon Steffanson 6'-5" So. SG/SF
Andre Hazel 6'-0" Sr PG
Franklin Matos 6'-3" So. PG
Deshawn Jones 6'-4" So. SG/SF
Ricky Thornon 5'-10" Sr. G
Jack Martinez 6'-8" Jr. PF
Malcohm Heron 6'-4" Jr. SG/SF
Armand Ivory 6'-2" Jr. PG/SG

This team features several high-level D-I players.   Andre Hazel, who has committed to the Nevada-Reno Wolfpack, is the lone senior on this team and if there is any weakness here it's that there's only one senior.   "Andre is our captain this year, and he'll be asked to assume a lot of the leadership,"  Wayne told us. "He's a very smart player, probably the best pure point guard in this year's senior class on the West Coast, in my opinion, and he'll be asked to assume a lot this year.  The torch has been passed,"  Wayne said of Andre. 

Artesia is not lacking for good guards, but again besides leadership, it may also be that the team doesn't have a lot of tremendous inside height. What Fernandez and Martinez lack in size as true post players, they more than make up for in skills and versatility. Jack and Amaury are two of the most highly recruited juniors in the country.   "You wouldn't believe how intense their recruiting is already,"  Wayne said, "even though we haven't even sat down and really talked about anything, which I don't plan on doing with them for quite a while, probably not until the end of the season, just as I did with Jason, the O'Bannons, Avondre Jones, and all the other players I've been through the process with."  They are both more wing/forward types than true post players, although Fernandez can play the low post and often does with very good results against most teams Artesia faces during the regular season.  Jack is a tremendous shot blocker, a great rebounder, with a huge wingspan, and he's more of a slasher and a penetrator than is Amaury, who can both post up and shooting out on the wings.   "The one thing that we do have going for us is our ability to be very versatile, and to create matchup problems for opponents,"  Wayne said.   Both Jack and Amaury are nationally ranked and have been since they were freshmen, and there's no question that between them, they are among two of the best players at any position in the very talented junior class.

Another strength of this team will be it's real depth at the guard positions, and that would include a number of players (in addition to Andre) who are capable of playing the point and who will in what inevitably will also play in what will be a three, sometimes a four, guard rotation.  Ryan Reyes is as strong as any guard gets, and in addition to being an excellent defender and a playmaker at the point, Wayne really considers him almost "interchangeable with Andre" depending on the size of opponents and the matchups Artesia wants to create.   Another player who will get time at the point this year will be will be Franklin Matos, who is tremendously talented, but will need to learn to really adapt to the system of play at Artesia and develop an understanding of what the program tries to accomplish.  "There's no doubt at all about Franklin's athletic ability, since he's a natural. He just needs to learn to be able to play within himself all the time, and if he does, he's got trememdous upside.   This past year, Franklin made the Double Pump West Coast All-Stars "all-soph" game, and was also named to the Long Beach Fullcourt Press Showcase all-soph team. He's very talented, strong, athletic and has great size, and is one of the toughest players in the sophomore class.  Armand Ivory is another guard who will occasionally see time at the one and at the two. He's very athletic, "a scoring machine" according to Merino, who will need to get bigger and stronger in order to help accomplish some of the things that he'll be needed to do. Ricky Thornton will also play a bit this season, although most likely as a relief player for for Andre, but then he also does some very nice things.  

Artesia is, again, a team without a true center, but their extremely high degree of athleticism more than compensates, and every coach we've asked  to name Preseason "Top 10", regardless of position, has named Artesia first among their selections. Most will name Mater Dei as their No. 2 choice, but from an overall personnel point of view, Mater Dei could be the deeper team at each position,  and they certainly have one of the top centers in the junior class in Jamal Sampson (6'-11" Jr. C),  but even without a true post player, Artesia still is rated higher by most area high school coaches.  "It's one of our few weaknesses, in addition to the fact we have only one senior," said Wayne. "But if we don't have any really, really big man this year, we also have incredible depth outside on the perimeter, which is something we've not often had, at least not to the degree we'll have it this season."

Out on the perimeter and the wings, in addition to Amaury and Jack, look for Tony Roberts, an excellent shooter who will come in off the bench, and whose biggest strength is his ability to hit the open shot and score.  He's sometimes  a streaky shooter, but we've seen him in games where he's hit 6 3-pointers, so we know he can really get it going when he needs to. A definite starter at the wing will be Steffanson, a hugely successful shooter, a very big guard who is also developing into one of the top players anywhere at shooting guard and small forward.  He too has tremendous upside, and like the rest of the likely starters on this team (Amaury, Jack, and Andre), Steffanson also attended ABCD camp where he played very well and attracted national attention.  Other guards in the program creating the tremendous diversity of players and talents will also include Aaron Aska, a very talented player who has been in the program for 4 seasons and a player whom we'd expect to see get some quality time  this year at the two spot off the bench, and Malcohm Heron, another player with lots of upside potential who will create both an offensive and defensive spark off bench this season. Deshawn Jones  is also another of the "strong guard" types, a player with a nascent shot who is young but has the potential to be an excellent offensive player; he's a very reliable defender, with great quickness who also has a chance to be a D-I player.

At the true small forward/ power forward spots, in addition to Jack and Amaury, we'd look for Ryan Mueiller, a young player who is, according to Merino, "coming along, developing very nicely."  Mueiller is a big-bodied, strong player, in the same mold as Fernandez, albeit not yet as skilled, he has the potential to be another high D-I player by the time he graduates.  Wayne describes him as "hardworking, and with a great attitude, a player who has the potential to be a legitimate D-I". 

Overall, Wayne described the team's strengths as "athleticism, defensive ability, perimeter play, and it's great depth at the wings. "We've always been used to this great inside presence, but this year, even without Jason Kapono, we've got great depth outside, which is really something new for us."   Of the team's weaknesses, "Wayne summarized by saying, "We don't have many, maybe just that we don't have a true center, and possibly  the fact that we have only one senior, from a leadership point of view."  

Asked to name his own Preseason Top 10, Merino said, "Well, in no particular order, any top 10 would have to include Artesia, Dominguez, Mater Dei, Fontana, Poly, Upland, Ayala, Jordan, Compton Centennial, and Mayfair.   There are some others who might be included, like Santa Margarita, Redondo, and several other teams I've seen, but these are the ones that come to mind."

Artesia will have an interesting pre-season.  They won't be traveling outside of California this season.  They'll start off with a tournament up in Hanford from Dec 8-11th, which will feature mostly teams from Central and Norcal.  Then from December 20-24, the team will be in Santa Barbara for a tournament hosted by San Marcos HS which will feature some great out-of-state teams.  Then from December 27-30, Artesia will host the annual Best in the West Classic Tournament at Long Beach State.  This year's field will attract most of the better teams in California, including several from NorCal and Central Cal:  Archbishop Mitty, Ayala, Bakersfield, Bellarmine Prep from San Jose, Bishop Montgomery, Long Beach Cabrillo, Centennial, Clovis West, Crossroads, LB Wilson, Fontana, Serra, San Francisco St. Ignatius, Tampa Catholic (Fla), Upland, Verbum Dei, Dominguez, LA Washington, Canyon Springs, Hanford, Harvard Westlake, Hoover (Fresno),  Long Beach Jordan, Long Beach Millikan, Morningside, Long Beach Poly, Palisades, Perris, and Pasadena.

Following the Best in the West, league play will begin (Wayne didn't have the completed schedule, but promised to fax it to us and we'll include it as soon as we get it), and during the regular season they'll take several league games and play them as a part of two high profile events:  In January over the MLK, Jr. weekend the team will play in both the adidas Double Pump Hoop Challenge against Bellflower, and they'll also participate in what has been called for several years the Nike Hoop Challenge where they'll play Dominguez (the even this year is at the Pyramid at Long Beach State instead of Pauley Pavilion as in past years).

Then just before the final playoff run, but still during the regular season, Artesia and Long Beach Poly will host the "Artesia- Poly Classic" on January 29, sometimes called the "SoCal Classic", which this year will feature Roman Catholic (Philadelphia), Mater Dei, Dominguez, Washington Union, Serra, Verbum Dei, Pasadena, Santa Margarita, LA Wash, at LA Southwest College. "We're supposed to play Mater Dei, but the matchups haven't been worked out yet, and maybe we'll play Roman Catholic or another team,"  Merino told us. "Actually while the teams are set, none of the games is yet scheduled."   Which of course, is the disadvantage of doing these previews this early in the year.

This may not be the most talented of Artesia's teams in the past few years, but they are one of the most athletic and deepest at just about every position with the exception of a true center.  But we don't think that's going to slow them down a bit, and they could very well wind up again facing Mater Dei or possibly Dominguez  again in the State Regionals.  Whether they'll be lucky enough to stay injury-free to make it to Sacramento is something only time will tell.

 The Swish Award
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