WATSONVILLE — Athletically, Monte Vista Christian is expected to stack up nicely against the rest of the teams in the Monterey Bay League Gabilan division.
Mentally, however, they’re still trying to figure things out.
Now in his second season with the Mustangs, head coach Hasan Houston is trying to instill a mental toughness and physical aggressiveness that was sorely lacking in last year’s team.
So far, Houston’s squad has only been able to tap into the new mindset for small spurts. But those flashes have the coach’s expectations high.
“The team is really talented,” Houston said. “There’s still firepower to be tapped into.”
The Mustangs graduated six from last year’s team, which finished 13-10 and advance to the Central Coast Section playoffs. Starting point guard Isaiah Rocha is gone and so is 6-foot-8 big man Carl Snyder. But speedy guard Miles Greene, sharpshooting wing Aiden Ezeji-Okoye and skilled center Lucas Schmidt all return from last year’s starting five for their senior season.
Guard Riley Kafka and forward Daniel Glenn are also back for their final season with the Mustangs, who are hoping to make a deep postseason run.
“I feel like we’re going to do a lot better than last year,” said Schmidt, who is in his fourth varsity season. “I think since half of our team has had some CCS experience, this year we’re looking to go further. Everyone is prepared.”
Schmidt, especially, has upped his game from last season. The 6-foot-9 powerhouse, who averaged a double-double last campaign, has slimmed down for the third straight season and has added a few new deceptive moves to his post repertoire. His defense, too, has improved drastically, allowing him to switch onto guards in a pinch.
“All summer long I was just trying to get my feet faster and get in front of people,” Schmidt said.
In a league overflowing with teams playing 5-out offense and relying on the dribble-drive, M.V.C. will look like a throwback. The Mustangs like to run their offense around Schmidt, an underrated passer who can find the open shooter from the block or the elbow.
“We’re not hiding it,” Houston said. “We focus in on going to Lucas and working the ball around him. We have really talented guards but guys have to buy into that old school approach…We’ve got a great center… I got to keep working on ways to get him the ball.”
Junior Andrew Lee and sophomore Mason Beske both measure in at 6-foot-4 and have provided a nice boost around the rim for the Mustangs, who won their first five games but have since had a few wake-up calls.
Seniors Brian Hanover and David Alcantar, juniors Noah Garcia, Michael Phillips and Verna Michael and freshman Tanner Batt fill out the rest of the Mustangs’ 13-man roster.
“We’ve played pretty well but when we come against teams that are equally matched to us, we seem to shutdown a little bit in the first half,” Schmidt said. “We need to get a lot better before the start of the season. Before we play Monterey and Palma and all of them.”
Palma High is the three-time defending champion and has a solid team once again.
The defending CCS Division III champ, Monterey High will be a real threat to Palma for the second straight season.
Newcomer Alisal High, the two-time defending MBL-Pacific division champion, has also impressed through the preseason.
Over in Castroville, North Monterey County High does not have very much size but the Condors have nonetheless found ways to score under new head coach Patrick Kilty, who took over for Jared Ames.
Junior wing Dulian Morelos is the lone holdover that contributed to last year’s 13-12 squad.
Seniors Zion Lopez and Isaiah Garcia, junior Joseph Bertao and sophomore Brandon Ducusin will all try to make up for the graduation of do-it-all big Jeremy Heitzman, who averaged 18.4 points, 13.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game last season.
San Benito High and Salinas High also compete in the MBL-Gabilan.
After finishing near the bottom of the league seven years in a row, Pajaro Valley High took the Pacific division by storm last season en route to an 8-4 record and a second-place finish.
This year, the Grizzlies will be on everyone’s radar with a handful of contributors returning from a squad that won its first CCS playoff game since the 2008-09 season.
Senior Ryan Magbag and sophomore Christian Quintero are both back from last year’s 17-win team and have provided a nice 1-2 punch for the Grizzlies in the backcourt.
However, graduation stripped Pajaro Valley of its two starting bigs, Ray Escobar and Jonathan Chavez.
Six-foot-2 senior forward Tony Reyes has filled in nicely by averaging 13.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game through the preseason.
Aside from Reyes, it’s been a rebounding by committee situation for the undersized Grizzlies, who feature five sophomores, four juniors and four seniors.
“There’s been a lot of growing pains,” said Pajaro Valley head coach Andre Bailey. “It has to be a collective effort because we’re a lot thinner and smaller than we were last season.”
The MBL-P’s Freshman of the Year last season, Quintero has played like a league M.V.P. candidate through the preseason. The 5-foot-10 guard is averaging 19.7 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.7 steals per game. Quintero, who is shooting the ball right around 45 percent for the season, has managed to keep the Grizzlies competitive even when they might have been overmatched.
“He’s good because his team believes in him,” Bailey said. “He’s always been a high I.Q. kid and that helps… He’s just bigger, stronger and faster this season. He’s getting more comfortable.”
Across town at Watsonville High, interim head coach Mark Northcutt has had to start from scratch with an inexperienced and young team.
Seniors Gio Gonzalez and Jade Canero are the lone returning players with varsity experience. Gonzalez is a high-energy 5-foot-11 forward and Canero is a streaky 5-foot-5 shooter.
Aside from that pair, Northcutt has two seniors, five juniors, two sophomores and one freshman that have had a tough time playing with consistency.
“We have spurts of good stuff and then we have spurts that will make your stomach turn,” said Northcutt, the school’s Athletic Director who took over on short notice. “The kids are amazing. They’re fun and they’re good kids. But we’re not ready for what we’re trying to do.”
Gonzalez’s hustle has helped Watsonville through tough stretches and junior forward Lucas Ruiz has developed into a dependable scorer and defender as the season has progressed.
At 5-foot-11, Gonzalez and Ruiz are the Wildcatz’s tallest players.
“[Ruiz] has actually become our best all-around player,” Northcutt said.
Watsonville might not be able to compete for the title this season, but Pajaro Valley looks to be one of the top challengers to Christopher High, which was moved down to the Pacific after finishing last in the Gabilan last season.
The Cougars have looked like the cream of the crop through the preseason, beating Pajaro Valley and also edging San Benito earlier this month.
Alvarez High, Gilroy High, Seaside High and North Salinas High also compete in the MBL-P.
Both Alvarez and Seaside are also expected to give Christopher a run for its money come next week.