Central Section, CA – The 2023-2024 high school basketball season is less than a week away from its official start and November has some intriguing match-ups to kick things off. The Central Section is coming off one of the best seasons overall as far as accomplishments and accolades in comparison to the rest of the state, with team and individual player awards.
St. Joseph won the NorCal Open Division Title, San Joaquin Memorial won the Division 2 State Championship, and Sierra won the NorCal Division 5 Title. Mike Davis Jr. of San Joaquin Memorial was named CalHi Sports Division 2 Player of the Year and Tounde Yessoufou of St. Joseph was named Sophomore of the Year in California by CalHi Sports. Logan Kilbert of Sierra and Yessoufou of St. Joseph were both in the top 10 in scoring per game in California. Although it will be hard to accomplish the same level of team success at the state level this season, there will be plenty of story lines, elite match-ups, relevant rivalry games, and outstanding individual accomplishments forecasted for the next 5 months.
One thing that has already generated a lot of buzz heading into this season is the amount of player movement within the Section. Dalen Felder, last season’s TRAC leading scorer, transferred to Bullard, as well as Sean Smith-Sharkey from Clovis West and Tarrin Valenzuela from Roosevelt, as Bullard will look to capitalize on these new pieces. Clovis West literally got a big transfer in forward/center Christopher Baudreau from Bishop Gorman of Las Vegas, NV to fill the void missing last year. Defensive specialist Gerald Perry departed from the defending Division 2 State Champs San Joaquin Memorial and is now at Central. Dereon King left Hoover to Edison, along with David Rios leaving Bullard for Edison. These player moves will make for some intriguing league and non-league match-ups that should provide the fans with plenty of entertainment.
In this article, I provide a breakdown of my Preseason Top 15 Team Rankings. I discuss where and why I have each team starting the season off in the spot they are in. I have taken into consideration how teams ended last season, new players that have joined rosters, as well as players that have left or graduated, and a projection of how they will perform against the competition this season. I have spoken with coaches, media outlets, and others in the basketball community in the Central Section in putting these rankings together. The number in parentheses before the teams’ names is the previous ranking from my final rankings of last season, as well as the record in parentheses. We begin with a team that is no stranger to being in the mix for the top spot in the Section, Clovis West.
1. (3) Clovis West Golden Eagles (Fresno CA) (30-4)
The Golden Eagles are coming off another 30 win season and appeared in their second consecutive Central Section Championship Game (Open Division in 2022 and Division 1 in 2023), as well as a share of the TRAC League Title with rival Clovis North. Although the Golden Eagles had, by all measures, a highly successful season, the lack of interior size was the main reason Clovis West fell to St. Joseph in the Section Title Game and Granada in the opening round of the Division 1 State Playoffs. The Golden Eagles have added Bishop Gorman transfer Christopher Baudreau to its roster, who stands at six foot nine inches and will provide post-presence missing from last year’s squad. In addition to Baudreau, the reason I have Clovis West as the preseason top seeded team is the return of a senior heavy roster with talent, chemistry, and a winning pedigree that have included multiple players from the team’s 2022 Section Title. I was able to see the Golden Eagles multiple times at their own Fall Shootout back in September and the team looked impressive against quality competition, and that was without key players out due to football. I would not be surprised if the Golden Eagles hold onto this this #1 preseason ranking for a majority of the year and are a likely candidate to enter the Section Playoffs as the #1 seed.
Key Players: Seniors Jackson Young, Zach Chauhan, Marsel Sanders, and Tytus Khajavi; juniors Christopher Baudreau, DJ Stickman, Jaren Mayberry; sophomore Jace Kellogg; freshman Lawrence Moore
2. (1) St. Joseph Knights (Santa Maria CA) (28-7)
The Knights are coming off of the most successful season in program history, as it won the NorCal Open Division Title before falling to Harvard-Westlake in the State Championship Game. St. Joseph won its 2nd Section Title in three years and did so in dominant fashion behind the monster game from power forward Caeden Hamilton. Although the Knights are returning two of the top players in the Section, and nationally ranked, it graduated four key pieces in Hamilton (Marquette), Luis Marin (Concordia of Irvine), Will Kuykendall (walk-on at Arizona), and Darian Menssah (Tulane-Football), which will put all the pressure on its two key guys without the depth of last year. Despite the Knights likely not contending for a state championship this season, the ability of standout junior Tounde Yessoufou to dominate and take over a game by himself, along with super sophomore Julius Price, St. Joseph will be a top contender to return to the Division 1 Section Title Game with a chance to repeat as Section Champs. Although their league has provided no challenge to the Knights since the 2020-2021 season, St. Joseph has a rigorous preseason schedule, as well as critical match-ups against quality California opponents in one-day showcase events.
Key Players: Juniors Tounde Yessoufou and Diesel Lowe; sophomores Julius Price and Abdoul Bare; freshman Malcolm Price and Godson Eyita
3. (5) Clovis North Broncos (Fresno CA) (23-8)
The Broncos entered last season with a lot of uncertainty after losing star point guard Connor Amundsen for the season to shoulder surgery. Despite the huge loss, the Broncos rallied together and ended the regular season as co-TRAC League Champs with Clovis West. Clovis North was knocked out of the postseason in the quarterfinals by Bakersfield Christian but had a monster June with the return of Amundsen to the roster for the scholastic live periods. Clovis North won the Consolation Championship in the Champions Division at the prestigious Border League in Vegas in mid-October. Although the Broncos did get a win over St. Joseph at Border League, I still have the Knights ranked one spot ahead of Clovis North given the outcomes for both teams last season. Also, Clovis North does not have the interior size and length it has had in previous years, which could be problematic against the top teams in the Section. Having said that, the Broncos have as good a chance as Clovis West and St. Joseph in making a run to the Section Title Game, something that has eluded Clovis North in recent years despite being a top four team in each of those seasons. The Broncos will play one of the toughest schedules in the section and will definitely be battle tested come playoff time.
Key Players: Seniors Connor Amundesn and Jordan Espinoza; juniors Loukas Jones, Nolan Birchall, and Gus Swenning; sophomores Elias Gish, McKae Amundsen, and Josh Padilla; freshman Jahlil Montgomery
4. (4) Bakersfield Christian Eagles (CA) (22-10)
The Eagles had a rollercoaster of a season last year, as it was under .500 going into the New Year then, once standout guard Gabe Gutierrez was cleared to play, went on an impressive streak that led to an upset win in the quarterfinals of the Division 1 Section Playoffs over Clovis North to get into the final four. Shortly after the season ended, Gutierrez decided to leave the country to pursue basketball at an academy in Taiwan, which put the primary scoring load on the shoulders of Bentley Waller and many thought it would be a down year for the Eagles this season. However, Gutierrez returned to the Eagles later in the Summer, junior guard Ethan Eckles transferred from Independence, and a trio of talented freshmen to go along with Waller and the rest of the roster puts Bakersfield Christian back in the conversation as one of the top contenders for the Central Section Division 1 Title, and top team in the South Valley. Waller and Gutierrez will be one of the top duos in the Section and it will be battle tested once the playoffs arrive, as the Eagles have arguably the toughest schedule of any Division 1 team in the area. The depth, size, and firepower of the Eagles roster has a nice blend of veteran play and talented youth.
Key Players: Seniors Bentley Waller and Louis Duarte; juniors Gabe Gutierrez and Drew Minnear; freshmen Jeremias Killebrew, Taiwo Daramola, and Kai McCrary
5. (2) San Joaquin Memorial Panthers (Fresno CA) (26-9)
The Panthers had the best season in school history, in regards to accomplishments, as it won its first state championship and had the Division 2 California Player of the Year in MIke Davis Jr. Similar to Bakersfield Christian, the Panthers struggled in the first part of the season, as it awaited the clearance of Coalinga transfer Julius Olanrewaju and the talent to morph into chemistry that could lead to success. Many in the media felt if the Panthers got the pieces to mesh, it would be the team best suited to take down St. Joseph, which it almost did in the 2nd round of the Division 1 Section Playoffs losing by two points. San Joaquin made an impressive run to the Division 2 State Championship Game behind the dominant play of seniors Davis and Armari Carraway and won the school’s first state championship over Pacifica Christian of Newport Beach. I have the Panthers at the #5 spot because it graduated its two top players from last year’s roster, as well as the transfer of starting point guard and elite defender Gerald Perry to Central. Although San Joaquin will have plenty of talent on this year’s team, it is a young team that has not shown the defensive prowess from a season ago. The Panthers have size, talent, and depth that will give them the opportunity to win a lot of games if the players buy into the team first mentality. There is more uncertainty this season but the talent is there as always.
Key Players: Senior Dre Davis; juniors Julius Olanrewaju, Abram Potts, and Silas Rodriguez; sophomores Parker Spees and Sajjin Sidhu; freshmen Jaxson Silverstrom and Ty Schalk
6. (6) Centennial Golden Hawks (Bakersfield CA) (23-6)
The Golden Hawks have been one of the top teams in the South Valley the past three seasons but the regular season success has not translated into postseason wins, as Centennial has not solidified a playoff win despite the high seedings it has earned. Last year looked like it might be the year the Golden Hawks make a run in the playoffs, as it was the #4 seed in Division 1 and a first round bye. The loss of multiple time league MVP Rippen Gill days before its playoff game against league rival Stockdale Mustangs proved to be too much for Centennial to overcome, as it was knocked out in the quarterfinals. Despite the lack of playoff success, the Golden Hawks return a senior heavy roster, headlined by Gill, that is physical, skilled, and has the chemistry needed to win another league title and a chance to redeem itself and make a run in the playoffs. Centennial has the pieces needed to make a run and Gill is eager to show his squad can make some noise and contend for the Division 1 Section Title.
Key Players: Seniors Rippen Gill, Donquavius Bolton, Godwill Fomusoh, and Jaxton Santiago; juniors Brendan Keefer-Johns, Michael Gutierrez, and Rodrick Hodges; freshman Giovanni Fomusoh
7. (11) Bullard Knights (Fresno CA) (18-12)
The Knights are one of the more intriguing teams in the Section, as it has acquired one of the best offensive weapons in the Section in transfer Dalen Felder from Clovis East, as well as Sean Smith-Sharkey from Clovis West. The Knights core pieces are young but very skilled and, although it is likely to take some time for all the new and youthful pieces to fit together, Bullard will compete for a CMAC Title and give the likes of San Joaquin Memorial and Edison a run for their money in league play. The Knights play a tough schedule in the preseason, which should give the new look roster plenty of time to get situated and make a postseason push in the Division 1 Playoffs and will be a team that no one will want to face, as Bullard always tends to turn it up a notch in the playoffs. Although the Knights should have success this season, I see this team truly competing for a Section Title the next two years, as its young core become upperclassmen.
Key Players: Seniors Jaleel Jackson and Kyshawn Johnson; junior Tarrin Valenzuela; sophomores Ja’Vance Coleman, Dalen Felder, and Sean Smith-Sharkey
8. (HM) Edison Tigers (Fresno CA) (16-14)
The Tigers are coming off a roller coaster of a season that had high points with wins over eventual Division 2 State Champs San Joaquin Memorial and a last-second loss to Division 1 Section final four Bakersfield Christian, as well as some down moments that led to the program having to forfeit some wins that impacted its postseason seeding. Regardless of the ups and downs, the program made some moves in the right direction and are returning the core of last year’s roster, along with some quality guard play transferring in that will make the Tigers one of the top teams in the Section and a legitimate candidate to win the CMAC League Title. Edison graduated senior lead guard Yaj Vance but his spot will be replaced by Hoover transfer Dereon King (once his 30-day is up) and David Rios coming over from Bullard, both quality guards that will add a scoring punch and depth to an already veteran roster. It may take the Tigers a bit longer than other teams to reach their full potential, with key players just coming in from football and transfer sit-out periods, but once the roster is at full strength, Edison will have the depth, size, physicality, and skill to compete with any team in the Section. The Tigers have put together one of its toughest schedules in recent memory and this will get them battle tested for the postseason.
Key Players: Seniors Va’Ron Mitchell, Ray Brown, Wendell Ware, Kameron Bowen, Jayvon Joshua and David Rios; junior Dereon King
9. (NR) Clovis East Timberwolves (CA) (16-13)
The Timberwolves brought in the top freshman class last season and it was reflected throughout the season with some quality wins, as well as close games against TRAC League co-champs Clovis West. The Timberwolves were led last season by Dalen Felder, who led the TRAC in scoring as a freshmen, but Felder has transferred to Bullard. Despite the tough loss, Clovis East still has a lot of talent on the roster and a nice blend of youth and veteran play. The Timberwolves will add one of the top freshmen in the Section in Asher Thompson, and will look to rely more on emerging sophomore Lydell Farmer and others to be a more complete team this season. Last year, most in the media felt it would be a few years before the Timberwolves would compete for a TRAC League Title and, with the top middle school player Tristan Beechler a year away from joining the high school ranks, that is still my prediction for Clovis East. The team will be competitive this season and give Clovis North and Clovis West challenges, but it is still a year away from moving up this list and possibly being a top 5 team in the Section.
Key Players: Seniors Jeremy Pierro and McKay Olsen; junior Harold Duvall; sophomores Lydell Farmer, Aidan Beechler, and Trenell Emerson; freshman Asher Thomspon
10. (12) Dinuba Emperors (CA) (25-6)
The Emperors have been one of the top small school programs in the Section the past few seasons and are coming off a successful year with wins over Central, Kingsburg, Liberty of Bakersfield, Frontier, and Lemoore. The Emperors return a majority of its core pieces from last season and, given the thoroughness of the offensive system, it will be poised to get wins over teams from higher divisions and should be the odds on favorite to win its league. This is why I have Dinuba rounding out my top 10 to start off the season, as it has established a winning record and is worthy of this high preseason ranking.
Key Players: Seniors Javier Torres, Brice Watley and Angel Sanchez; junior Josiah Ochoa
11. (8) Mission College Prep Royals (San Luis Obispo CA) (23-10)
The Royals had a solid season last year behind the stellar play of Jamar Howard (University of Texas Rio Grande Valley), as it would be the 2nd best team from the Central Coast area of the Section and only team to give St. Joseph a challenge in Mountain League play. Although the Royals lost a huge piece from last year’s team in Howard, it is returning a majority of its roster, and will have the size and shooting to be a likely candidate to return to the Division 1 Playoffs.
Key Players: Seniors Luke Jacobson and Maddox Contreras; juniors Roman Benedetti and Jayden Nozil
12. (14) Kingsburg Vikings (CA) (18-13)
The Vikings had a slow start last season, but hit its stride the 2nd half of the season en route to a Division 3 Section Title over Sierra. Although the Vikings did graduate its top player from last season, Connor McFall, the team is returning the core from last year and will have size, depth, and shooting to make another run at a Section Championship and will have the firepower to knock off teams from higher divisions in tournaments or single day showcases.
Key Players: Seniors Isaak Smith and Nick Palmer; juniors Chris Browe, Bryce Cornett and Carlos Blancaz; sophomore Jensen Hirschkorn
13. (NR) Central Valley Christian Cavaliers (Visalia CA) (15-14)
The Cavaliers had some quality wins last season but fell short of what I thought was a team that could make a run at a Section Title in Division 4 but lacked the guard play to complement its bigs. The Cavaliers have filled that void with one of the top freshmen in the Section and top point guard prospect in his class, AJ Johnson. CVC has size to dominate the post and size that can operate off the perimeter. Johnson has been special from what I have seen up to this point and will be an instant impact player to compliment the bigs.
Key Players: Senior Justin Stroud; juniors Caden Lloyd and Erick Estrella; freshman AJ Johnson
14. (15) Sierra Chieftains (Tollhouse CA) (31-6)
The Chieftains had a season for the ages and the best in school history, as it was runner-up in the Division 3 Section Championship, and the Division 5 NorCal Champs, losing to Lynwood in the State Championship Game. The Chieftains return the top scorer in the Section and will be a likely candidate to make a run in the Section playoffs. Sierra has some quality match-ups this season and, although a small school program, given its success last season and the return of elite score Logan Kilbert, I am starting the Chieftains off in the top 15 going into the season.
Key Players: Seniors Logan Kilbert and Luke Brown; junior Chayce Duerksen
15. (NR) Roosevelt Rough Riders (17-10)
Rounding out the top 15 is the new look Rough Riders, who had a solid season last year going undefeated in NYL play. Although it graduated two key bigs from last year, Roosevelt is getting back standout junior James Miller after missing most of his sophomore season due to injury. A key transfer coming over from Clovis West and the top incoming freshman prospect in Cobi Posas will make the Rough Riders an intriguing team to watch that are the preseason favorites to win their league again.
Key Players: Senior Skylarr Redwood, junior James Miller IV; freshman Cobi Posas
Honorable Mention/Bubble Teams
Arroyo Grande Eagles (CA) (22-10)
Central Grizzlies (Fresno CA) (10-20)
Clovis Cougars (CA) (15-16)
North (Bakersfield CA) (18-11)
Sanger Apaches (CA) (18-11)