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SoCalHoops High School News

High School Team Preview:
Fontana Steelers--(Oct. 19, 1999)

"We like to play an up-tempo game. I try to give the guys some structure, but I also like to let them run and improvise. With our schedule and the opponents we have, you've really got to do a little of both."--John McNally, Fontana High head coach.

The above quote was the same one we used in our preview of Fontana last season, but it's equally applicable this season.  Fontana plays in the very competitive Citrus Belt League in the CIF Southern Section, against teams such as A.B. Miller, Eisenhower, Redlands, Redlands East Valley and Rialto. The city of Fontana itself was formerly the Inland Empire's steel manufacturing capital, and the town still retains some of the toughness and edge that goes along with a town with steel plants, smelting operations and metal fabricating facilities. Of course, the area also used to feature vineyards and orchards before all the housing developments moved in, but that's another story. The image and ethos of the tough, hard-working, blue-collar area still remains, and Fontana still gets more than it's share of tough-nosed, hard-working players. The nickname of the team reflects this same heritage:  "The Steelers."

John McNally is the head coach, and he's in his 12th season at the high school level, his 6th as a varsity coach, and his 5th as the head coach at Fontana High, which used to have the distinction of being the largest single enrollment school in Division I-AA (the highest enrollment division) of Southern Section CIF. Last year the team went 19-9 overall and 8-2 in league, and finished first in the Citrus Belt League.

The school formerly had an enrollment of 4,500 students, but then the new Kaiser High School has just recently openend, so no one is exactly sure where the enrollment figures will be when and if the CIF actually gets the new "CBED" enrollment figures upon which the playoff divisions (I-AA, I-A, II-AA, etc. and so on) are based.  Those figures aren't released until December, so until then no one is really sure what the revised enrollment will mean to the rest of the CIF, but John McNally is certain about one thing:  "It's really not going to matter to us, because even if we lose about 1,000 students, we'd still be at I-AA, the largest enrollment division," McNally said.   Fontana has a huge pool of talent to draw from,   and for each of the last few years that McNally has been at the helm things have continued to improve based largely upon how he's utilized that talent. McNally has been coaching since he was in college, attending Mt. Sac JC, and he continued coaching kids as a student at UCLA. He had played "some" in high school at Hacienda Heights Wilson, but then broke his leg during his senior year, putting an end to his playing days. But he wanted to stay involved, and got busy coaching as an assistant when he turned 19, just one year out of high school Following his graduation from UCLA, he started coaching as an assistant at Nogales, where he also taught classes full-time. In 1995, he was the varsity head coach at Damien, but then he got the call from Mike Southworth, the former coach at Fontana (who just recently took the boys' head coaching job at a small school in San Bernardino, Aquinas, and resigned a few weeks ago, citing personal reasons), and for the last 5 years, he's been in what he considers the ideal job. "I never really thought about being a coach, but I really love what I do. It's a great job." 

Last season, Fontana won the league championship and made it to the round of 16 in the Southern Section I-AA playoffs, and they were eliminated by eventual semifinalist Centennial (Corona), losing 84-75.  The prior year, with virtually the same team (with the exception of guys like Glenn Summerall, Derrick Benjamin and James Dowe, who all graduated in 1997-98), the team made it to the quarter-finals of Division IAA CIF Southern Section playoffs before losing to Etiwanda by two points, 79-77.

Last year's team featured a very good cast of characters, including Gary Holmes (who was originally recruited to Eastern Washington, but ended up at a Northern Idaho  JC due to a "snafu" at EWU regarding his enrollment application), Baron Baker,  Joseth Dawson (who is at Diablo JC), Scott Anderson, and Ray Hopes, all of whom have graduated, but there are more than a few returning players, including  Michael Stephenson (5'-9" Sr. PG),  Jordan Walker (6'-6" Sr. SF/PF), Corey McJimson (6'-5" So. SF), Aaron Gipson (5'-9" So. PG) and Mark Mancha (6'-2" So. SG), and there are more than a few newcomers too.  Here's the roster for this season:

Wesley Washington 6'-2" Fr. SG
Danny Strickland 6'-2" Sr. G
Jordan Walker 6'-6" Sr. SF/PF
Aaron Gipson 5'-9" So. PG
Jose Gallardo 6'-0" Jr. G
Cory McJimson 6'-5" So. F
Chris Duran 5'-9" Jr. G
Shedrack Obukur 6'-2" Jr. SG/SF
J'Marc Perry 6'-3" Jr. SG
Nick Johnson 6'-4" Sr. F
Michael Stephenson 5'-9" Sr. PG
Mark Mancha 6'-2" Jr. SG
Marques Jackson 6'-4" Sr. F
Trayvon Williams 6'-4" Fr. SF
Erik Crull 6'-3" Jr. F
Guillermo Ochoa 6'-5" Sr. F/C
Travante Nelson 5'-9" Fr. PG/SG

Like Artesia, this team also lacks a true center, and at least in comparison to the Pioneers, they would also seem to be lacking any true power forwards of the caliber of an Amaury Fernandez or Jack Martinez.  But what they seemingly lack in the altitude department they more than make up for in speed, quickness and scoring ability, which is, after all what the game is all about.  There only needs to be a one point difference between winning and losing, and Fontana is a team that knows how to put the ball in the basket, and they can do it quickly. We saw this team during the Best in the West Summer Tournament come from 20 points down to win by three, and they did it in dramatically quick fashion.  This is a very dangerous team, with great athleticism and they are also smart and very well coached.

The big news with this team, aside from the returning players is the arrival of three new freshmen, Wesley Washington, Trayvon Williams and Travante Nelson, all three of who have played together for years for Pat Barrett's Southern California All-Stars. These three have won three straight AAU National Championships, and it's clear that they are used to playing at a high level, but they are still going to have to learn to adjust their games to a new and higher level. "These three have been able to dominate just about everyone within their own age groups for the past several years," McNally said.  "They are still making the adjustment to having to play at much higher level of defense and also learning to adjust to the tougher defensive pressure they'll face.  It's clear though that they are extremely talented, and they are also surprisingly level-headed young men, who haven't let all their success go to their heads. I think these guys all have a chance to be really special," McNally told us.

Washington is a slashing, fearless player who had a great summer. He is extremely athletic, can get to the basket, runs the floor and plays terrific defense.  He's also got a great attitude, as do the other two freshmen, and according to McNally, just "shows up to play, and puts it all on the floor, all the time."    McNally would not go as far as saying that any one of the three players was guaranteed a starting spot, but he did say that they are all on the inside track and even if some of them don't start all the time, they will each get plenty of playing time. Trayvon Williams will have that inside track for a starting spot based on his height alone on this team.  He's a tall, skinny, lanky player, also particularly fearless when it comes to playing against tougher players. He's got great passing skills, a developing shot off the dribble, and is a good defender, very smart and savvy in a real basketball sense. He will need to adjust to the defensive pressure that he'll be facing, but again, his athleticism will carry him during this first season until he matures.   The third of the "Fab 3" as they have been dubbed by a few local San Bernardino papers, is Travante Nelson, a quick combo guard who can shoot the ball accurately, is a great passer and has tremendous court presence.  Like the others, he always plays hard, but perhaps is the hardest and toughest of the three. 

Others with an "inside track" to get the nod to start is returner Jordan Walker, one of the two team captains (the other is Mike Stephenson, the returning starter at the point) and Jordan is a big time shooter and very athletic rebounder, another slasher with a great handle who is one of the smartest players on the team and certainly among the team leaders this season.  Jordan is getting some looks from schools in the Big Sky, WCC and Big West, and he'll probably wait until the spring to sign. Another returner with a shot at a starting spot is Aaron Gipson, a super quick, tough and fearless point guard, an excellent passer who sees lanes and seems to always be thinking about two passes ahead.  Of course sometimes that unselfishness is counterproductive, but he's usually looking more for the open man than he is looking to score himself.  He's also an excellent football player so he probably won't join the team until sometime in late December so don't look for him in the early games.

There are a couple of other guys who could also be starters this season: Shedrack Obukur, another football player and a transfer from Rialto who came to Fontana to play football not basketball, had a really good summer for McNally, and he'll also rejoin the team after football season ends.  He's a great defensive player, with a good handle,  an excellent shooter out to three point range, and he's also a very unselfish player and team leader.  We know that he can light it up when he gets hot and he scored  29 points in a game this summer against Long Beach Jordan, so there's no doubt that he comes ready to play every time out and has the potential to be a dangerous scoring threat. Michael Stephenson (5'-9" Sr. PG) is probably one of the few players who McNally felt comfortable stating would definitely be a starter;  he's one of the few returning players who was a starter in every single game last year.   Stephenson formerly played for IEBP but most recently joined BWBA at the Double Pump Fall Premier Tournament where he led his team (which also featured the Wesley Washington, and Washington's former SoCal All-Star teammate Harrison Schaen of Mater Dei) to the finals.    Stephenson is one of the captains of the team this year and he'll be expected to be a team leader.  He's very quick, has good lateral and reverse speed, great hands, and he's a tough, hard-nosed defender. His only downside, as a potential college prospect is his lack of overall size. But what he lacks in height he more than makes up for in athleticism and court sense, and right now he's being looked at by some D-II's including Cal State San Bernardino, and a couple of D-I's like Idaho, Montana State and others. He'll likely wait until the spring until the top tier players sort out their schools to see what's left.

The team is loaded with good guard talent. In addition to the other players noted above, there will be several others who could see some significant time out on the wings or in the backcourt. Danny Strickland is a great shooter who can flat-out play; he'll need to step up his defensive intensity, but he'll get his share of minutes.  Jose Gallardo is a banger, a guy who will most likely come in off the bench to spark the defensive intensity;  Chris Duran, a newcomer to the varsity, is a young, developing player who was the MVP of last year's Fontana JV team. He's a talented, smart shooter, and McNally is expecting big things from him.  J'Marc Perry, another pure shooter is one of the hardest working players on the team.  He's got good athleticism, shoots well with a good high release and is still just developing; he's a bit on the wiry side, but is growing and if he can put on some weight and muscle, should be a key player in the next two years.  Mark Mancha, another returning varsity player, is a hard-working banger, who can also shoot well (he's a lefty), and is the kind of kid who will run through a wall if asked.  He's the one who goes out and does all the things most guys dislike:  Diving for loose balls, setting picks, hitting other guys and letting them know that basketball is a contact sport.

Up front, Fontana will also have a plethora of talent.   In addition to Jordan Walker who will likely start, the team will also have Marques Jackson, a pretty big kid who will likely end up playing center.  He's a reasonably good jumper, a decent shot-blocker with long arms who is just now developing as an offensive player. He's a team leader, one of the few seniors, and he'll need to exert the senior leadership that McNally desires. Nick Johnson is an athletic, hardworking rebounder, who comes out to practice and works hard every day, another of those "dirty working" guys (in a good sense), the kind who screen, pick, and play unselfish basketball.  Cory McJimson, another returner, is really more of a wing player, and is versatile enough to play inside or outside; he's starting to fill out, and has a decent touch from outside.  He can score and often is a better than average shooter out to three point range, who is getting much better on defense but is still growing into his body.  He's not yet a real leaper, but again, when he learns what he can do with his body, he'll be a great blocker blessed with long arms.  Erik Crull, a returning letterman,  is another hard working "tough" player, a defender who will do the little things that win games, from diving after loose balls, to setting the picks and screens so that others can create their own shots.  Finally, Guillermo Ochoa will also wind up playing the low post mostly for his defensive and offensive rebounding skills; he's another big-bodied banger who is currently playing football and will join the team about midway through the pre-season some time in December.

We asked McNally about the strengths of this team and he said: " I like our quickness, and hopefully our defensive will carry us too, and with the combination of quickness and the ability to throw a lot of different looks at teams with a lot of guys, we should be able to force an uptempo game. We play hard, really hard, and that's one of our best strengths, and led to a great summer. As for weaknesses, McNally was pretty blunt about it:  "We have no size. I'd say that a lack of height will be our major disadavantage and weakness this year.

As for a Citrus Belt League outlook this year, McNally told us, "Anyone could take it this year. If you think I'm going to tell you that we're the favorites, you're nuts.  This is really going to be very hard this year.   Rialto is tough, Ike is always talented, Redlands is very hard every year, and Randy Genung is definitely the man. I think the loss of Lawrence Carrier at Redlands will hurt him, but they've got a lot more size than we do.  Redlands East Valley could also be very tough.  Really, this is not going to be a cakewalk for anyone,"   McNalley said.

Asked to name his "Preseason Top 10", he didn't hesitate for a moment, even though he didn't name all ten:  "Artesia, Mater Dei, Domginuez, Long Beach Poly, Long Beach Jordan, Inglewood, Redondo, Compton Centennial . . . I don't know, I'm sure there are others.  Again, if you think I'm going to include Fontana, I'm not.  At least not yet."

Fontana will also have an interesting preseason, with scrimmage games against Ontario and Nogales, a non-league game against Alta Loma, and then they'll be at the JW North Tournament from December 1-4, followed by the Ocean View Tournament of Champions from  December 6-11.  From December 27-30, they'll be at the Best in the West Tournament hosted by Artesia at Long Beach State, and then on January 1, 2000, (which happens to be a Saturday) McNally and Gary McKnight are trying to set up the first game of the New Millenium.  "We don't have a gym yet, but we're still trying to set it up, and we're keeping it on the schedule,"  McNally told us. "We hope the game will be a double header with Glendora and another team, but our two teams [Fontana and Mater Dei] will definitely play somewhere on January 1."

Fontana will also host their own MLK event this year for the first time, so there will be three different competing MLK weekend events happening, and since there can't be any games on Sunday, we hope that we can be in two places at once in order to cover all three (the Nike Dream Classic, the one hosted by Dominguez is usually on Monday, while the Double Pump Hoop Challenge is usually on Saturday).  Fontana's MLK event will be held at UC Riverside and tentatively will feature Pacific v. Fontana, Ike v. Ayala, Ontario v. JW North, Redlands v. Cajon, and two more games that McNally hopes to add.

Fontana will also play in the Nike Extravaganza V in 2000, which will be held Saturday February 5, 2000, at the Long Beach State Pyramid. Once again it will feature two sessions of outstanding high school basketball. As far as we now know, here's what that one will look like:

The Morning Session:
10:00 a.m. Servite vs Ocean View
11:30 a.m. St. John Bosco vs Villa Park
1:00 p.m. Santa Margarita vs Glendora
2:30 p.m. Mayfair vs Fontana

The Evening Session:
4:30 p.m. Durango (Las Vegas) vs Fairfax
6 p.m. Long Beach Poly vs Los Alamitos
7:30 p.m. Mater Dei vs Concord De La salle
9:00 p.m. Oak Hill Academy vs Dominguez

We also got the entire season schedule for Fontana for 1999-2000, for you diehard fans who just have to know about every game in advance.   Here it is:

Day Date Opponent Game Site Game Time
Fri 11/26/99 Scrimmage
Nogales 12:00 p.m.
Mon 11/29/99 Alta Loma Alta Loma 7:00 p.m
Wed-Sat 12/1-4 North Tournament J.W. North TBA
Mon-Sat 12/6-11 Ocean View TOC Ocean View TBA
Sat-Fri 12/26-31 Artesia Best In The West Long Beach State TBA
Sat 1/1/00 Mater Dei TBA 7:30 p.m.
Tues 1/11/00 Eisenhower Fontana 6:30 p.m.
Fri 1/14/00 Rialto Rialto 6:30 p.m.
Sat 1/15/00 Pacific UC Riverside TBA
Tues 1/18/00 AB Miler AB Miller 6:30 p.m.
Fri 1/21/00 Redlands Fontana 6:30 p.m.
Tues 1/25/00 Redlands East Valley Redlands E. Valley 6:30 p.m.
Fri 1/28/00 Eisenhower Eisenhower 6:30 p.m.
Tues 2/01/00 Rialto Fontana 6:30 p.m.
Fri 2/4/00 AB Miller Fontana 6:30 p.m.
Sat 2/5/00 Nike Extravaganza LB State Pyramid 2:30 p.m.
Tues 2/8/00 Redlands Redlands 6:30 p.m.
Thurs 2/10/00 Redlands East Valley Fontana 6:30 p.m.

We expect Fontana to again challenge for the league title and go deep into the CIF Southern Section playoffs. Just how far they go will depend upon how well they play and who plays up to their division. Perhaps they'll take it all. That's the great thing about this game. You just never know what's going to happen.  We'll be watching.

 The Swish Award
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