NBL boys basketball: No easy days for new-look league

By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press DemocratMontgomery junior Alec Raven, a returning All-Empire player, is an efficient scorer for the Vikings who excels at getting teammates involved. Montgomery faces Cardinal Newman tonight at Santa Rosa Junior College.

CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat
Montgomery junior Alec Raven, a returning All-Empire player, is an efficient scorer for the Vikings who excels at getting teammates involved. Montgomery faces Cardinal Newman Monday at Santa Rosa Junior College.

One of the deepest, most difficult North Bay League boys’ basketball fields demands a high level of play every night out.

Take very strong squads at Cardinal Newman and Montgomery, good clubs at Casa Grande and Maria Carrillo, a resurgent Ukiah team, improving Windsor and the league slate is indeed challenging. Santa Rosa has one of its best teams in recent years and Rancho Cotate is always a handful at home.

“There are really good teams. In the NBL you’ve got to be prepared to play or you’re going to lose,” said Tom Bonfigli, coach of defending league champion Cardinal Newman.

Adding former Sonoma County League perennial powers Casa Grande and Windsor, last season’s SCL champion, increases the degree of difficulty.

Six of the squads made the North Coast Section playoffs last season. Windsor and Cardinal Newman made CIF state playoff runs.

Parity among many league teams could mean beating up on each other, resulting in losses that might affect section playoff positioning. Yet a strong league also aids resumes and primes teams for difficult postseason contests.

“I don’t see too many other leagues that will prepare you better for the playoffs,” said Casa Grande coach James Forni. “Every night is definitely going to be a dogfight.”

An early season skirmish is on tap Monday night, with Cardinal Newman and Montgomery facing each other for the first time this season.

So great is the fan turnout for these typically tight games that the contest has been moved from Cardinal Newman to Santa Rosa Junior College. Always a sellout, school officials tired of turning away large crowds. SRJC also is the site for the rivals’ second matchup this season on Feb. 4. Tip-off for both games is 7:30 p.m.

Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the NBL boys’ teams.

Cardinal Newman Cardinals

Last year’s record: 27-7 overall, 12-2 NBL

Overview: Returning four starters including league MVP and All-Empire standout Kenny Love, the Cardinals have one of the school’s best teams in recent years.

Corey Hammell, an all-league forward, has improved on the defensive side to complement his already strong rebounding and team-leading scoring. Lock-down defender Tim McCullough is back at point guard after earning All-Empire honors.

“We have a lot of depth. We have good size,” Bonfigli said. Playing the program’s most difficult schedule in Bonfigli’s second stint leading Cardinal Newman has the Cardinals poised for a deep section playoff run. Cardinal Newman would like to be a factor in the state playoffs. But to realize those goals demands consistently stout defense because the scoring will be there.

“The kids have had to elevate their game every night and that’s tough,” Bonfigli said.

Player to watch: Cardinal Newman has rolled without Love at 100 percent. Slowed by an ankle sprain in the Montgomery tournament, Love is working back to be among the league’s best all around players. Accustomed to playing on overdrive, Love is unselfish, too quick at times to give up the ball. If he scores more, Cardinal Newman is even tougher to defeat.

Montgomery Vikings

Last year’s record: 18-10 overall, 12-2 NBL

Overview: Taller, stronger, and more experienced than a year ago, Montgomery appears to be the one NBL team that can challenge Cardinal Newman for the title.

Typically one of the Empire’s best defensive units, the Vikings have been winning behind shut down stretches. A deep bench gives coach Tom Fitchie ample substitutions for fresh legs without a drop off in skill. So deep is Montgomery that a pair of starters from last season now comes off the bench.

Montgomery was tested by a tough non-league schedule including splitting four games at the prestigious Holiday Classic in San Diego. “You want to be able to play in close games. You get that preparation against pretty good competition,” Fitchie said.

Leading the Vikings is returning All-Empire player Alec Raven, an efficient scorer who is unselfish with the ball. Newcomer Noah Orlik, a transfer from Acalanes High in the East Bay, has settled in well at point guard.

Player to watch: Still just a junior, Raven is a smart player with size and skills even sharper than a year ago. Raven finds ways to keep opposing defenses from focusing too much attention on him. More than a scorer, Raven handles the ball and passes with confidence.

Windsor Jaguars

Last year’s record: 28-7 overall, 11-1 SCL

Overview: First-year coach Travis Taylor is a familiar face having led the strong Healdsburg program before taking over in Windsor. Taylor adds to the depth of very good coaching in the NBL.

With only one returning starter in all-league sharpshooter Casey Myers, the Jaguars have been an improving squad aiming for a top-four spot in the league.

Defense has been consistently solid, keeping Windsor close until the Jaguars find enough scoring to complement Myers often hot hand. “We need to continue to hang our hat on our defense and we need other players to step up,” Taylor said.

Adam Garcia has been a major contributor on offense. Michael Basich is the sixth man spark, usually assigned to an opponent’s top scorer. “We’re playing better, even through our losses,” Taylor said.

Player to watch: A pure catch-and-shoot scorer on last season’s state playoff team, Myers worked to sharpen other skills to be a more complete player his senior campaign. Myers is much stronger in the Jaguars’ man defense and handling the ball. Always smart moving into space, Myers trusts teammates to find him and makes good decisions with passes.

Maria Carrillo Pumas

Last year’s record: 21-8 overall, 10-4 NBL

Overview: Beset by injuries for the Pumas’ entire non-league schedule, Maria Carrillo showed it could contend when healthy by defeating Casa Grande in the NBL opener. A strong league campaign is needed to reach the section playoffs after struggling in the early going. Maria Carrillo is expected to be in the mix for the best of the rest in the NBL with Casa Grande, Windsor and Ukiah.

First-year coach Will Parker, up from leading the junior varsity, figures the Pumas can be successful pushing the pace on offense and playing a basic man-to-man defense. “Our defense is pretty strong. They have to communicate more. If we work a little harder, we’ll be better in the end,” Parker said.

With no returning starters, Maria Carrillo goes with a deep rotation to spread scoring and keep defenses honest. John Atchison and Al John down low anchor the starting five.

Player to watch: Atchison, the team’s leading scorer, leads a group of five returning players working to get Maria Carrillo back to the NBL tournament and NCS playoffs. While sidelined with a fractured knuckle early in the season, the center is back in time for league play. Atchison helps steady a team that needs to make the most of each possession.

Rancho Cotate Cougars

Last year’s record: 15-14 overall, 8-6 NBL

Overview: Returning only a single starter from last season and very young, Rancho Cotate has struggled yet remains focused on finishing strong. The Cougars figured to be challenged in returning to the section playoffs — the appearance was the Cougar’s first in six seasons.

Coach Dennis Magatelli has used nine different starting lineups to find a rotation with more balanced scoring. Turnovers were a problem early. Helping on defense will be a season-long focus. “In some games it’s been ‘wow.’ In others it’s inconsistent,” Magatelli said.

The scoring and rebounding load has fallen on the sturdy shoulders of Nick Reynolds, an all-league post presence. Carlos Soto pairs with Reynolds down low. Michael Courchaine has been a fine addition at guard.

Player to watch: Averaging a double-double, Reynolds is even more difficult to defend this season. Reynolds has worked on footwork and quickness to get open around the basket and has a good midrange jump shot to draw out defenders. Fast for his size, Reynolds runs the court well.

Casa Grande Gauchos

Last year’s record: 15-13 overall, 7-5 SCL

Overview: Playing with the personality of a teenager — good moments followed by head-scratching stretches — Casa Grande is working to play at a high level more consistently.

Scoring is a strength for the Gauchos most nights, both from the perimeter and when pumping the ball into the post. Casa Grande needs more balance on defense, though a sturdy rebounding game often helps limit opponents scoring chances. “We just want to be competitive. If we play hard enough down the stretch, maybe we can win a few league games,” Forni said.

The Gauchos’ lone returning starter is Cetrick Yeanay, one of the league’s best shooting guards. A trio of other players typically share the scoring load, led by top rebounder Kyle Kaupe. Three seniors give the Gauchos experience that could contribute to a strong finish.

Player to watch: A two-year starter as a junior, Yeanay is able to create open shots on his own and strong enough to drive to the basket. While he is a prolific scorer, Yeanay uses the offense to create chances for teammates. Casa Grande likes to pressure full court with quick guards and mobile big men and Yeanay is one of the Gauchos’ better defenders.

Ukiah Wildcats

Last year’s record: 12-14 overall, 6-8 NBL

Overview: Bigger than in recent years, Ukiah has another stable of quick, strong guards, making the Wildcats a contender for a top-four league finish.

Always a running team, Ukiah is looking inside more this season and the result is a balanced offense. Four players average double figures in scoring and another quartet pulls down more than a handful of rebounds each per contest.

Pressing on defense is another trademark of coach Bill Heath and Ukiah has the depth to keep fresh legs on the court. “We try to dictate tempo,” Heath said. “We don’t always shoot the ball well. So we have to rebound well and out hustle opponents.”

Personifying that gritty play is Paul Steliga, an all-league guard who, with Frankie Garcia, plays big despite small statures. Brian Sherwood leads the Wildcats’ improved post presence, particularly in rebounding.

Player to watch: Steliga is a smart, crafty player, reflecting his basketball family roots. Fearless on both ends of the court, Steliga can will the Wildcats to wins. A double-figure scorer, Steliga is also a gifted passer and a strong defender.

Santa Rosa Panthers

Last year’s record: 7-19 overall, 3-11 NBL

Overview: One of the most talented Santa Rosa High boys’ basketball teams in recent years is still working to play well over four quarters. Taking care of the ball has been a focus because turnovers continue to limit the Panthers’ efforts to stay close in contests.

Reading and reacting on offense demands good decisions, and that is a work in progress for Santa Rosa. With more size this season the Panthers are working for points in the paint more after settling too often for deep shots last year.

Returning all-league forward Austen McMahan and center Dustin Rome, a top league shot blocker, are solid targets for the Panthers’ guards. The post pair are the Panthers’ returning starters. Jacob Graves is a high-scoring point guard. An improving defense reflects a tougher team personality.

“We’re just trying to get kids to believe in the system and play hard,” said Santa Rosa coach John McGill.

Player to watch: McMahan is a sharp-shooting big who can draw out defenses and also works well around the basket. With a team emphasis on working for higher percentage shots, McMahan is playing more with his back to the basket this season. The more he mixes it up, the harder McMahan is to defend.

You can reach Staff Writer Michael Coit at 521-5470 or mike.coit@pressdemocrat.com.

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