Small School Talent Shines

Long Beach City College venue provides backdrop for some memorable moments for one longtime prep sports contributor, including farewell efforts from father-daughter combination at Bishop's of La Jolla and another hot night from sophomore scoring machine Candice Wiggins.

The long ride home to San Diego from Long Beach City College gave me plenty of time to contemplate on what I had just witnessed in the Division IV and V boys and girls Southern Regional Basketball Championships and the conclusion I came to is that in 20 years of covering high school basketball in California I have never seen the talent level of players and coaches any better in the small school divisions than the current crop in Southern California.

If you don't think that Los Angeles Price's coach Michael Lynch is building a dynasty...just ask Reedley Immanuel coach John Thiesen. For the second straight year his Eagles were grounded by the Knights and in much the same fashion. Price just has too much talent and too many players that keep getting the job done. Four players averaged in double figures this year...and that was the case against Immanuel in a 73-61 victory.

Although 6-6 forward Kalief Washington (10 points, 10 rebounds) and 6-2 guard Frank Peace (17 points) graduate, Lynch has several underclassmen waiting for the opportunity to shine and help keep the streak alive. Price has two consecutive state Div V titles under its belt. Only Dominguez of Compton has won three state titles in a row...doing it the last three years in Division II. Now, Price gets the opportunity to join the Dons if it can beat San Francisco University next Saturday in Sacramento.

A funny thing happened when I took a break to have dinner in the CIF hospitality room after the Division V boys game. I sat with Lynch and his assistants and I thought the conversation would be about the possible Price "three-peat." Instead all they could talk about was the play and natural athleticism of La Jolla Country Day girls standout Candice Wiggins.

The top teams in the nation and the state have had problems corralling the 5-11 sophomore who is averaging 30 points a game. In the first two games of the regionals she burned the nets for 42 against Baptist Christian and 38 against Immanuel. With a return to Sacramento and an opportunity for a second consecutive Division V state championship on the line against Los Angeles Pilgrim, she responded with another dominating performance. This time it was 37 points with 11 rebounds and eight steals, which left her just short of recording her ninth triple-double of the year.

Brittany James had 18 points for the Lady Pats and highly regarded Amber Cunningham had 17 points, but only one other player could muster a bucket as Country Day rolled past Pilgrim 63-37. Next Saturday at ARCO Arena the Torres will face the Paris twins, Courtney and Ashley, of Modesto Christian. All year Wiggins has helped her team stay with the likes of Lynwood and Long Beach Poly while only eight players suited up for most of the games.

At this stage of the season Wiggins seems to be in another zone. With help from fellow sophomore 6-1 Marissa Rivera and senior 3-point sharpshooter June Brubaker plus coach Terri Bamford's use of freshmen Latoya Cunningham and Mercedes Fox-Griffin to take some of the ball handling burden away from Wiggins so she can play more down low, the Lady Torres will be hard to topple. Almost everyone who has seen Wiggins play, including Price's Lynch, agree...this young woman already seems to have the tools to shine far beyond the high school level.

Division IV has seemingly been the one area in which Northern California has managed to have some relative success in recent state finals. This year, Rick DeMartini will finally get a chance to fulfill his dream of winning a state championship at Marin Catholic when he brings a once nationally ranked Wildcat squad that features 6-3 Duke bound Brooke Smith to Sacramento for a date with destiny...or shall we say Alexis Kendrick, the All-American bound for Georgia and Shannon Clay and coach Felicia Simon of St. Bernard's of Playa del Rey.

This hungry bunch is eager to avenge a championship defeat two years ago at the hands of St. Mary's of Stockton. Simon would love to add a fifth state title to the four her predecessor, Lori Pawinski, earned and establish herself amongst the fine up and coming coaches in the Southland. I can remember the press conference at ARCO in 2000 when a tearful Kendrick vowed to be back...and back she she dropped in 24 points and continuously sliced and diced the defense of the Bishop's School of La Jolla by driving the middle and pulling up for the soft open jumper.

Although the final score of St. Bernard 56, Bishop's 46 meant that the Lady Knights would not return to Sacramento to defend their title, the season was by no means a loss for Bishops, their players or their immensely talented coach, Fentriss Winn. Last year he sent daughter Brianna on to play at UCLA and this year Mallorie will graduate and get a chance to play immediately at Georgia Tech.

As a result, this ambitious coach, teacher and sports marketing entrepreneur has decided to move on himself...and not because he doesn't love Bishops and the girls he leaves behind. Winn will depart with eight section titles under his belt for the proud La Jolla school, including six in a row with the girls. He won two concurrent section titles with the boys when, believe it or not, he coached both boys and girls.

"Getting an opportunity to go to a program at the next level that wants to rejuvenate and build something better is what I'm looking for," Winn said.

And programs are knocking on his door. He already has a firm offer from a JC in California and next week he flies to North Carolina for an interview at a Division I school. Wherever he lands, Fentriss Winn will make that program better for the school and the student-athletes there.

Finally, nowhere is the talent level higher than the ranks of Division IV boys. When Garces Memorial of Bakersfield got the opening tip-off in the Southern Regional final and 7-0 sophomore center Robert Swift took a pass and went up for a jam...only to have the ball rejected by Horizon of San Diego 6-7 star Nate Carter...and then on the ensuing play Smith returned the favor by making Carter taste leather...the crowd of 4,550 could sense a donnybrook in the making. In a classic nip and tuck affair including several slam dunks and seven blocked shots by Swift later, Carter and his teammates would not back down.

Along with junior 6-5 teammate Jared Dudley and 6-2 junior Ryan Read, Horizon drove the middle, undaunted by the size of Garces and made its free throws down the stretch to prevail 68-65 in a game not decided until the final seconds.

It's not hard to see why Garces was able to upend former multiple state titlist Verbum Dei in the semifinal. The Rams' front line not only sported a 7-footer, but three other major contributors 6-5 or taller...and this is Division IV!

Coach Zack Jones of the Panthers, a gentleman who still inspires fire in the defense he has made famous at Horizon, gets a chance to avenge a defeat in his only previous appearance in the big dance. The Panthers would seem a prohibitive favorite against Valley Christian of San Jose to join the slim ranks of boys teams from the San Diego Section to win a state title. Their conditioning has allowed them to run, run, run for 32 minutes against almost everyone they've faced and their intimidating, smothering defense is more than anyone in Division IV has been able to handle.

As a transplanted Northern Californian, I still must admit it seems a long shot for the north to win more than one of the four games in these two divisions. The talent in Southern California is just that good...and getting better.

Harold Abend provides updates from the CIF San Diego Section every week for the Cal-Hi Sports state rankings and the Student Sports FAB 50 national rankings.

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