The high school basketball season kicked off last Monday, November 15th, for most teams in the Central Section of California, and there have already been some good match-ups between teams projected to be at the top of the Section, as well as some of the top players having strong starts. Throughout the season, I will provide a recap of games that I have attended 2 times a month, rank the top 15 teams in the Central Section, and help shed more light on an area that is overlooked and undervalued. This first article looks at the 1st two weeks of the season and is followed by my first list of top 15 teams in the Central Section. 

Pictured in Photo: Joseph Hunter (San Joaquin Memorial)

Monday, November 15th:

The East Bakersfield Blades hosted the Frontier Titans to start the 2021-2022 season. The Titans enter the season as one of the better teams in the South Valley and should contend for a league title in the Southwest Yosemite League. Frontier asserted their dominance on the glass early and pushed the lead to double digits by the end of the 1st quarter. Frontier held a double-digit lead the remainder of the game and finished the first game of the season with a 60-46 win. Frontier was led by senior point guard Tyler Silva, who controlled the pace of play, orchestrated the offense to find open teammates, created his own offense by attacking holes in the defense, and finished with a team high 14 points. The Titan’s sophomore wing/guard Zykiar Henderson was able to assert his physicality around the basket on both ends of the court, controlling the glass, getting putbacks around the rim, and showing his range from the 3 point line, and chipped in with 12 points. Elijah Saavedra (10 points), Ndifor Ginyui, and Cameron Smotherman (both with 8 points) contributed offensively, as well as on the glass to provide additional opportunities on the offensive end for the Titans. Frontier looked solid in their season opener, and as Henderson gets a better feel for taking advantage of mismatches and bullying his way around in the paint, the Titans look to be a tough match-up for opponents this season. The Blades were led by senior guard Jason Sanders, who finished with 19 points and was effective at drawing fouls and getting to the free-throw line. I look forward to seeing the Titans again during the preseason to see how things start forming together. 

Tuesday, November 16th: 

The Liberty Patriots of Bakersfield hosted the Buchanan Bears of Clovis in an early match-up between two Division 1 opponents. The Patriots came out strong, as sophomore combination guard Deshawn Usochu was on the attack early and often, scoring 9 of his team high 16 points in the first quarter. The Bears made the necessary adjustments to clog up the paint, as well as catching fire from beyond the arc. Buchanan hit 12 threes, seven of which came from senior guard Arman Rai, who led all scorers with 27 points and was unconscious from deep. Senior guard/wing Robert Buckenberger and junior wing/forward Blake Freeman each contributed 9 points and, along with senior Matthew Mollica, controlled the glass and provided countless second chance scoring opportunities. Buchanan moved the ball very well, and kept the pressure on the Patriot’s defense, which led to wide-open looks from the perimeter. Senior guard Caleb Hamilton chipped in 13 points for the Patriots, connecting on 3 threes, but it was not enough to overcome the double-digit lead built by the Bears. Buchanan won the contest by a score of 62-49, and with the addition of Blake Freeman, look to be much improved from last season. The TRAC will be tough, as Clovis West, Clovis North, and Central all have solid rosters, but the Bears looked prepared for the challenge. 

Thursday, November 18th – Saturday, November 20th:

The annual 58 Freeway Shootout started on Thursday and wrapped up on Saturday, with the championship game between the Golden Valley Bulldogs of Bakersfield and the Paraclete Spirits of Lancaster. The tournament was held at Mira Monte and East of Bakersfield high school gyms. I attended games at MIra Monte High School on Thursday. 

The first match-up was between the Golden Valley Bulldogs and the Tehachapi Warriors. The Bulldogs have added a key guard piece to their roster and are predicted to be one of the top 5 teams in the South Valley. The Bulldogs got settled in quickly, and used their length and aggressiveness at the guard spots to turn up the heat on defense, turning the Warriors over early and often. Golden Valley had a 21-7 lead after 1 quarter and looked to breeze past Tehachapi. However, the Warriors fought back and pulled within 10 points, but still trailed 33-20 at the half. The Bulldogs jumped all over the Warriors in the 2nd half and ended up winning big, 73-41. The Bulldogs were led by senior forward Markell Brooks (game high 20 points), along with double digits scoring outputs from the other 3 key senior players; Jermaine Dabbs (14 points), Kemonte Jackson (13 points), and Jlen Slaughter (13 points and 8 steals). The defensive intensity, length on the perimeter and in the interior, and control of the glass were all vital to the big win by Golden Valley, which is what I expected from this roster.  Senior wing/forward Wyatt Baldwin had 12 points and junior wing Colin Thomson had 11 points for Tehachapi. 

The second game I watched on Thursday was between the host team, the Mira Monte Lions, and the Kennedy Thunderbirds of Delano. The Lions took an early lead over the Thunderbirds and were up 23-10 at the end of the first quarter. The Thunderbirds closed the gap slightly in the 2nd quarter, but did not hit their stride until the 2nd half, as junior combination guard Daniel Rodriguez started heating up from the perimeter. Rodriguez led the Thunderbirds to a huge comeback win, as Kennedy defeated the Lions 66-59. Rodriguez led all scorers with 33 points, connecting on 4 threes. The Lions were led by junior Julian Gutierrez (18 points), along with 14 points from senior Michael Murcia and 11 points from junior Brian Perez (who missed most of the 2nd half and remainder of the tournament with concussion symptoms).   

Friday, November 19th, I watched one of the games from the 58 Shootout Tournament, between the Garces Memorial Rams and the Wasco Tigers, played at the East Bakersfield Gym. The Rams took control of this game early and were up 33-17 at the half, and won fairly easily 82-44. This game did not have a lot of hype, as the Tigers have been a football dominant school in recent years. The Rams are also not expected to make much noise this season, after losing a core group that were 4 year varsity players, but there were some key takeaways that will serve Garces well in the years to come. The Rams were led by sophomore wing/forward Louis Duarte (21 points), and received solid contributions from freshmens Asher Garde and Carson Acevedo, and juniors Isaiah Perry and Garret Meeks. Freshman Elijah Wade had a family engagement for the game against Wasco, but I would see him on Saturday, and the youth and skill of this roster should give Coach Dignan reason to be optimistic about the future of the Rams. 

Championship Saturday had a slate of games, of which I attended the last 4 games of the event, including the championship game. The first game was the 1st semifinal game between the Paraclete Spirits of Lancaster and Garces Memorial Rams. Louis Duarte had another solid performance for the Rams, as he finished with 21 points, and despite a solid start to the game, Paraclete was too much for the Rams winning 82-62. The Spirits were led by sophomore combination guard Mister Burnside, who finished with 27 points and connected on 5 threes. Paraclete also had solid outings from seniors Dylan Cox (16 points) and Luke Cramer (13 points) to propel the Spirits to the Championship Game. The 2nd semifinal game was between the Golden Valley Bulldogs and the Kennedy Thunderbirds, which was not much of a contest, as the Bulldogs rolled past Kennedy 85-44, despite another monster game from junior guard/wing Daniel Rodriguez, who scored 32 points and hit 7 threes. The Bulldogs four seniors led the charge with wing Kemonte Jackson scoring a game high 25 points, as well as 19 points from Jermaine Dabbs, 13 points for Markell Brooks, and 11 from Jlen Slaughter. This set the stage for the Championship Match-up between Paraclete and Golden Valley. 

Although it is very early in the preseason and teams are a shell of what they will be as the season progresses, this game had a lot of anticipation, as many in the basketball community were curious to see how the Bulldogs would respond to their first big test of the season with high expectations for success this year. The game was competitive throughout, but the length, size, and veteran leadership of an all-senior starting five helped the Bulldogs maintain a lead that fluctuated around 7 to 10 points throughout the 1st half, as they went to the locker room up 35-28. Senior Markell Brooks started to dominate in the 2nd half, scoring 12 of his 20 points, and Golden Valley entered the 4th quarter up 51-43. The Spirits locked in on defense and senior Dylan Cox hit a pair of threes to help close the gap. The final minute was intense as the lead went back and forth a couple of times. Paraclete was down 62-60 when senior guard Amari Robinson hit a huge 3 point shot with time expiring on the shot clock to put the Spirits up 1 with less than 20 seconds to play. Jermaine Dabbs, who led all scorers with 22 points in the game, was feeling it late in the game and drew a foul on a 3 point attempt sending him to the line with a chance to put the game away. Dabbs knocked down all 3 free throws and time expired as the Bulldogs defeated the Spirits by a score of 65-63. Markell Brooks was named Most Outstanding Player of the event, as he had a monster 20 point and 12 rebound Championship Game. Mister Burnside (18 points), Dylan Cox (12 points), Jermaine Dabbs (22 points), and Kemonte Jackson (18 points and 9 rebounds) rounded out the All-Tournament Team. The bigger takeaway looking ahead was that Golden Valley showed that they could play their style of basketball and when they are locked in they should be one of the top 5 teams in the South Valley, if not tops. 

Tuesday, November 23rd: 

The Clovis West Golden Eagles started their season off by hitting the road to Bakersfield to take on 2 of the projected top 5 teams in the South Valley in the Centennial Golden Golden Hawks and the Independence Falcons. Clovis West’s season opener was against the Falcons, and they would be welcoming back 6’7+ senior forward/center Tyus Parrish-Tillman who had missed his entire junior season with a knee injury. Independence would be featuring their top prospect in senior Cameron Brown, who went into the game averaging 24 points through the first 2 games of the season for the Falcons. The 1st half was a bit shaky for both teams, and the shot-clock issues throughout the 1st half did not help, as each team struggled to find a rhythm with play being stopped multiple times. Nevertheless, the Golden Eagles had the early advantage in the post, as the Falcons, missing their center senior Kyriaun Davis with a shoulder injury, had no real answers for Parrish-Tillman. Tyus went into halftime with 13 points, as the Golden Eagles were up 28-23, in a low scoring affair. Brown got going in the 3rd quarter with a 3 pointer and a pair of 2’s to keep the game close. Also, freshman point guard Gabriel Gutierrez and senior Michael Pineda chipped in to keep the game within striking distance, but Clovis West would start to turn it up defesnivivekly and pull away for the 59-46 victory to start their season, as well as hand the Falcons their first loss. Parrish-Tillman finished with 23 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 blocks, as he looked very good for not playing any organized basketball for almost a year. Clovis West also had significant contributions from junior guard Issac Martinez (14 points) and senior guard Trey Carr (10 points). The Falcons were led by Cameron Brown (14 points), Michael Pineda (10 points), and Gabe Gutierrez (8 points). 

Wednesday, November 24th:

Clovis West was back at it the next day to take on the Centennial Golden Hawks at Centennial’s gym. Similar to the match-up against Independence the day before, this game was anticipated as expectations for the Golden Hawks are up this season and they have a legitimate chance to win the Southwest Yosemite League. It was also interesting to see where the Golden Eagles would generate perimeter scoring from, as they struggled with that in their opener. Junior shooting guard Issac Martinez left little doubt that he will initiate the perimeter scoring in the post-Cole Anderson era, and that he and Tyus Parrish-Tillman could be a solid 1-2 punch as the season progresses. The Golden Hawks were more competitive in the first half against Clovis West, compared to the Falcons the day before. Centennial had a 16-15 lead at the end of the 1st quarter and kept up a high level of play throughout the first half, and with the half court 3 point buzzer beater by sophomore point-forward Rippen Gill, the Golden Hawks only trailed by 2 points (39-37). Clovis West came out on fire on the defensive end to start the 2nd half, creating turnovers and transition points, and scoring 27 points in the quatter to take a 66-53 lead going into the 4th quarter. Rippen Gill had a strong start to the 4th quarter to get back within single digits, but Issac Martinez was putting on a show offensively and defensively. Clovis West won the game 82-66 led by a game high 27 points for Martinez, as well as another strong showing from Parrish-Tillman (14 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 blocks), 12 points for senior Trey Carr, and 10 points for sophomore Marshel Sanders. THe Golden Hawks were led by Rippen Gill (16 points), sophomore Jaxton Santiago (11 points), and junior point guard Elijah West with 10 points connecting on 3 threes. Clovis West comes away with two impressive wins, over 2 teams considered to be top 5 teams in the South Yosemite Conference, and will be a contender for the Open Division in the Sectional Playoffs, as well as holding onto their stronghold of the TRAC league. 

Saturday, November 27th:

One of the Central Section’s top programs, the San Joaquin Memorial Panthers, headed to Northern California on Saturday to take on one of the top teams in the state in the Modesto Christian Crusaders in the 14th Annual NorCal Tip-Off Classic hosted by Gerry Frietas. This event featured 8 games with some great match-ups from some Northern Cali heavy weights. The Panthers had a sluggish start and the Crusaders jumped out to an early double-digit lead. Modesto Christian went into the half up 45-34, as sophomore guard Jamari Phillips and junior guard BJ Davis each had 17 points. The Panther’s standout senior, and Fresno State commit, Joseph Hunter had 4 fouls in the 1st half but that did not stop him from exploding in the 2nd half, scoring 18 of his game-high 32 points. Hunter was helped by junior forward Mike Davis Jr., as he was one rebound shy of a double-double finishing with 20 points and 9 rebounds. Despite the outstanding performances by Hunter and Davis, the Crusaders Phillips and Davis did not let up, finishing with 29 points and 27 points respectively, as they won 87-71 over the Panthers. Despite the loss, the Panthers showed why they are one of the top 2 teams in the Central Section, and once junior guard Amari Carraway gets more comfortable in the system as a scorer, they will have one of the best 3-headed monsters in the Central Section, if not the state. Both teams play in the Clovis West Nike Invitational (December 7th-11th) and could face each other for a rematch. 

In other high school hoops news in the Central Section, the Centennial Golden Hawks of Bakersfield got a big win over the Golden Valley Bulldogs of Bakersfield behind a monster showing by senior Blake Dibble. Dibble had 39 points and tied the school record with 9 made threes (tying Cody Kessler), as this game was helpful in sorting out the early preseason rankings below. I was not at this game in person but received the stats from the coaching staff. The rankings below are my own rankings, with some help from a few coaches and media. These rankings will be updated 2 times a month. 

Central Section Preseason Top 15:

1. St. Joseph Knights/Santa Maria (0-0)

2. San Joaquin Memorial Panthers/Fresno (1-1)

3. Clovis West Golden Eagles (2-0)

4. Clovis North Broncos (0-0)

5. Bakersfield Christian Eagles (0-0)

6. Central Grizzlies/Fresno (1-0)

7. Centennial Golden Hawks/Bakersfield (2-2)

8. Bullard Knights/Fresno (0-0)

9. Independence Falcons/Bakersfield (2-1)

10. Buchanan Bears/Clovis (2-1)

11. Golden Valley Bulldogs/Bakersfield (4-1)

12. Sanger Apaches (2-0)

13. Frontier Titans/Bakersfield (1-0)

14. Hoover Patriots/Fresno (0-1)

15. Mission Prep Royals/San Luis Obispo (0-0)