By RICHARD J. MARCUS
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The path to the top of the heap of the Sonoma County League in boys’ basketball is straightforward and without much ambiguity — all roads lead through Analy.
The Tigers are literally head-and-shoulders above the other six SCL teams. With four players over 6-foot-4 and nine players at least 6 feet tall, Analy will be formidable on the boards and will have an edge in the interior in every SCL game it plays. Analy has height, depth, experience and a team dynamic that no other SCL squad can match on paper. In fact, all seven SCL coaches interviewed said without hesitation that Analy was the team to beat in the SCL.
In an early harbinger of what the SCL battle is likely to come down to, a Jan. 4 showdown between Analy and host Healdsburg ended with the Tigers defeating the Greyhounds 55-47 in a closely-fought game. Healdsburg is the most likely SCL opponent to overtake the Tigers, but it will be a tall order to achieve. The rematch between the Tigers and Greyhounds is Jan. 25 at Analy.
Gone to the North Bay League are two of Analy’s large-school rivals — Casa Grande and Windsor — in exchange for similar-sized schools in Piner and Elsie Allen joining the SCL.
“Windsor and Casa Grande have always been strong and good competition for us, so having them leave the league is kind of disappointing,” fifth-year Analy coach Brett Page said.
With the league re-alignment and disparity in talent between Analy and the rest of the SCL, it would be a surprise if the Tigers didn’t win the league with a bit of a cushion. However, before Analy is crowned SCL champ, league games need to be played over the next month and that’s where the fun begins. Below is a capsule of the seven SCL teams listed in predicted order of finish:
Last Year’s Record: 20-10 overall, 11-1 SCL
OVERVIEW: Analy has all the tools to win the SCL regular season and postseason tournament, and go far in the North Coast Section Division III playoffs and make it to the NorCal state finals.
Last season ended in disappointment as Analy tied Windsor for the regular-season title and beat the Jaguars in the SCL tournament. But because of a preseason random draw to settle a regular-season tie, the Jaguars were awarded the league title and seeded higher in the NCS playoffs. Analy went on to lose its second game in the NCS to Miramonte in double overtime on the road.
Flash forward to this season and Analy has played well in a tough preseason schedule. The Jaguars defeated Windsor 58-49 in the Windsor Shootout and barely lost to NBL powerhouse Cardinal Newman, 63-60, at Analy.
The Tigers are chock full of talent and play all 13 players on any given night. The Tigers have six returners from last year and three returning starters and are paced by a quartet of skilled seniors that have played together for some time — guard Gabe Greenberg-Pines, forward Geddy Dukes, guard Mohanned Halaweh and guard Josiah Sorensen.
“We feel like we are in a position to win the league if we play well,” Page said. “I have a very good team but we are still learning how to play.”
Strengths include height, rebounding, shooting ability, experience and depth. Areas of concern include intensity, floor discipline, shot selection, consistency and team chemistry.
“We are still trying to figure out the team chemistry. It is something that takes a while for whatever reason,” Page said. “We haven’t had the same starting lineup much this season.”
PLAYER TO WATCH: The tallest player in the SCL and Sonoma County, 6-foot-10 sophomore post player Erik Poulsen is averaging 20 minutes per game and becoming more of a fixture in the lineup. “Poulsen is a hard-working young man. He has made a lot of improvements this year already,” Page said.
Last Year’s Record: 14-14 overall, 6-6 SCL
OVERVIEW: Despite losing its first game against Analy, the Greyhounds went toe-to-toe with the taller Tigers and were unanimously chosen by SCL coaches as the second-best team in the league.
The Greyhounds have 11 players, five seniors and two returning starters, including senior point guard Cameron Lutz, who was a first-team SCL selection last year. Lutz averaged 18 points in the preseason and will lead a team that is guard-heavy with lots of shooters.
Freshman guard Jonah Lutz, Cameron’s brother, is averaging nearly 10 points per game.
“Jonah could be the best freshman in Sonoma County,” first-year coach Nick Galvin said. “He is absolutely fearless.”
The Greyhounds are getting used to a new system under Galvin and have a notion to run-and-gun whenever possible. Healdsburg has four players that can shoot beyond the arc which should come in handy. Rebounding against taller teams will be the biggest challenge for Healdsburg.
“We do not have the greatest athletes on our team for sure. We are a team with a bunch of role players that know what they are doing,” Galvin said. “These are blue-collar, hard-working kids. These boys impress me more and more every day.”
PLAYER TO WATCH: 6-foot-5 senior center Arnold Silva averaged 12.5 points and 13 rebounds per game in the preseason and figures to be a force in the middle. “This kid is an unbelievably improved player,” Galvan said. “I haven’t seen anybody that can rebound with him. He may be the best rebounder in the SCL.”
Last Year’s Record: 13-12 overall, 6-8 NBL
OVERVIEW: The Prospectors are very athletic but have no height, which will lead to getting pounded on the boards night-in and night-out. Piner is the smallest team in the SCL and will have to make up for it with speed and playing smart.
“We have no height on the Prospectors,” said coach Mike Erickson, whose squad is one of the smallest in his 22 years at the helm for Piner. “We have some quickness and speed but the lack of height hurts.”
Piner, while young, is reasonably deep with a rotation of 10 players that includes two returning starters in shooting guard Marquise Camp and point guard Natu Hezchias.
The Prospectors look to run and play full-throttle to try and minimize their height disadvantage.
“We try to press and play up-tempo. Teams get us in the halfcourt and we are in trouble,” Erickson said. “We do not have a whole lot of post presence or second chance (shots). It is what it is. We are not growing so we have to make it work.”
PLAYER TO WATCH: Hezchias does it all — scores, rebounds and runs the offense, which is a huge plus. Not so good for Piner is that the 6-foot Hezchias is the tallest player on the team.
ELSIE ALLEN LOBOS
Last Year’s Record: 5-21 overall, 0-14 NBL
OVERVIEW: Unable to win a game in the NBL last season, the Lobos are hoping their initial season in the SCL will be a different story.
“I am a lot more confident in our depth this year. We are going to sneak up on some teams this year,” second-year coach Madison Lott said. “I promise we will have more league wins this season than we did last season.”
Lott describes the Lobos’ style as playing 32 minutes of up-tempo basketball. Team strengths include guard play and athleticism. Lott said defensive rebounding is Elsie Allen’s biggest weakness. The Lobos only have 10 players of which only three are returners from last season.
“We are really young,” Lott said. “We have spent a lot of time working on fundamentals.”
Led by its guards, Elsie Allen has generated 12.5 opponent turnovers per game in the preseason with a defensive press that doesn’t rest.
“We try and wear teams down,” Lott said. “We are a young, exciting team to watch.”
PLAYER TO WATCH: Senior guard Angel Sanchez averaged 16.4 points per game in the preseason and is the team leader. Sophomore center Jalen Busby will anchor the middle for the Lobos.
SONOMA VALLEY DRAGONS
Last Year’s Record: 5-21 overall, 3-9 SCL
OVERVIEW: Like several other teams in the league, the Dragons have the potential served by youth but also the inexperience that comes along with it. Five of the team’s 11 players were on the freshman squad last season.
“We are really young so we are not very experienced, but we are improving every day,” Sonoma coach Dennis Housman said. “We are getting much better working for each other and getting the younger kids to focus on team chemistry.”
This is Housman’s second year back as coach after a previous seven-year stint.
“This is by far the youngest and most inexperienced team I’ve ever had, without a doubt,” Housman said. “I’m trying to get the kids to play at a varsity level. The speed of the game and the physicality of it are different than at the freshman or junior varsity levels.”
Housman said the Dragons have moderate depth with a solid eight-player rotation that counts shooting as a strength. The offense is a hybrid of sorts, not relying on the run game or the halfcourt set but a combination thereof.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Vincent Bruton, the lone senior on the squad, is the team captain as a post player despite only being 6 feet tall. He was an honorable mention SCL selection last year. Bruton is a wide body who has low-post moves along with a midrange jump shot.
EL MOLINO LIONS
Last Year’s Record: 8-14 overall, 3-9 SCL
OVERVIEW: Likely to finish in the pack along with Sonoma, Elsie Allen and Petaluma, the Lions hope to bounce back from the pounding they took the past several seasons in the NBL.
El Molino has good depth with 13 players and six returners from last year’s squad. The Lions have two solid players on the inside in 6-foot-5 center Travis McClintock and 6-foot-3 forward Kyle Keough.
“We try and work inside-out,” second-year El Molino coach Ruben Noles said. “We are up-tempo like some of the other teams in the league.”
Noles said the Lions’ defense and rebounding are in good shape but the team struggles converting free throws.
“Our defense creates opportunities for our offense a lot because we press so much,” Noles said. “We press the entire game.”
Noles said the team is getting better as the season wears on and that competitors know that the program is on the upswing.
“Increasing the win total over last year is more than doable,” Noles said. “People know they aren’t just going to come in here and beat El Mo like they have in years past, I guarantee that.”
PLAYER TO WATCH: Louise Rampone, a junior point guard, led the Lions in scoring in the preseason, averaging 15 points and converting 65 percent of his 3-point shots.
Last Year’s Record: 7-19 overall, 3-9 SCL
OVERVIEW: First-year coach John Behrs was hired on the first day of player tryouts on an interim basis after previous coach Scott Davis stepped down shortly before the season opener. Having to scramble to set up a new system under a new coach is not the way the Trojans had hoped to start the season. The result: A 1-11 record in the preseason and questions all around.
“We were thinking we were going to have a few more wins in the preseason,” Behrs said. “Hopefully, the nonleague schedule will help us in league.”
The Trojans got pounded 70-31 in their SCL opener at Analy, highlighting Petaluma’s problems. The Trojans have issues with experience with no returning starters from last year’s squad and a lack of depth on the bench.
“We are not a tall team nor are we real quick. Talent-wise we are a little thin,” Behrs said. “(But) our chemistry is good and the kids get along. The effort is there. We have had good practices but haven’t been able to translate that in the games.”
PLAYER TO WATCH: Senior shooting guard Clay Swanson will lead the offense with his penetration to the basket and 3-point shooting. Eric Hunsicker, a 6-foot-3 post player, will be the Trojans’ presence in middle.