The first month of the 2021-2022 high school basketball season has featured some big time match-ups, outstanding player performances, and wrapped up Saturday night, December 11th, with a triple overtime thriller won by Clovis West over TRAC rival Clovis North in what could end up being the game of the year. This article provides an updated Top 15 Team Rankings for the Central Section after a busy two weeks of basketball, along with a breakdown of why teams are placed in their current seeding. These rankings are based on my own personal evaluations, feedback from coaches, input from media outlets, and strength of schedule. I have personally seen every team on this list in person, with the exception of the St. Joseph Knights, which I have watched via their YouTube channel live-stream. I have made an attempt to watch as many teams as possible over the past month, and early on it appears that there is more parity throughout the Section this season compared to seasons past. Having said that, the top of the rankings look very familiar, with the top four teams being the programs that participated in the Open Division Playoffs last season. The remaining eleven teams in the rankings include some familiar faces in the Bakersfield Christian, Central of Fresno, Bullard, and Independence, along with a smaller program like the Dinuba Emperors. Honorable Mentions are teams currently sitting outside the Top 15 but could break through with wins over the next few weeks. The remainder of the 2021 calendar year will feature some huge winter tournaments that could have a major impact on this list when we start the New Year. I will update these team rankings before the start of regular season play, the first week of January 2022.
T-1.) St. Joseph Knights/Santa Maria (5-0):
At the top of the rankings, and picking up where they left off from last season would be the St. Joseph Knights of Santa Maria. The Knights are the defending Central Section Open Division Champs, but with four of the five starters being seniors it was not clear how they would be able to defend their title. The Knights did return 2 crucial pieces from the previous season’s roster, in standout senior guard Dre Roman and standout junior guard Luis Marin, which have provided the leadership and focus needed to make a run at a 2nd Open Division Title. Roman’s 16 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists per game, along with Marin’s 10 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists per game have provided the Knights with one of the most dynamic backcourts in the Section, and in California overall. However, it has been the stellar play of 6’5” freshman sensation Tounde Yessoufou, who is leading the team with 29 points and 10 rebounds per game, that has allowed the Knights to get off to a hot start to the season. Yessoufou has been making major noise to start his high school career, with a huge scoring performance of 44 points in a big win over the Central Grizzlies of Fresno at the Hoops at the Coast Showcase. Beyond the scoring, Yessoufou has gone viral on social media by breaking the backboard off of the hinges and ending the game off a monster dunk attacking off the perimeter. Beyond the terrific trio of Roman, Marin, and Yessoufou, the Knights have added 6’8” senior David Vidor and 6’8” junior Caeden Hamiltion from junior varsity last season, as well as a few others to provide the depth and toughness needed to repeat as Section Champs. The Knights have not had the most daunting schedule to start the season, but have won all 5 games by an average of 37 points, and with the player personnel losses of the other programs in the Central Section, I am confident in having St. Joseph as the number one seed for these rankings. The Knights will have some big challenges starting next week, as they are participating in the Mission Prep Christmas Classic that will feature Southern California powers Heritage Christian and Bishop Montgomery, Capital Christian of Sacramento, Seattle Prep, and a slew of other quality teams.
T-1.) Clovis West Golden Eagles (10-0):
The top spot in the Central Section will be shared with the surging Clovis West Golden Eagles, who are coming off a statement weekend of basketball and made a strong case for the number one seed. That is why I have the Golden Eagles and the Knights tied for the number one seed in the Central Section. Clovis West is undefeated at 10-0, and has won the NorCal Tip-Off Tournament in Rocklin, CA, and their own tournament, The Nike Invitational, this past weekend, getting past Central Section powers the San Joaquin Memorial Panthers and the Clovis North Broncos en route to the championship. The Golden Eagles have been led by 6’8” senior forward/center Tyus Parrish-Tillman, standout junior guard Issac Martinez (MVP of both tournaments), sophomore guard Jackson Young, as well as a strong supporting cast that is learning how to play their role and how important each piece is to the team’s overall success. Saturday night’s triple overtime thrilling win over rival Clovis North, behind Issac Martinez’s 31 points and Parrish-Tillman’s 25 points, showed that Clovis West may have the best guard-post combo in the Section, and it will be tough to defend this combination, along with the surrounding cast, for most teams in the Section. The Golden Eagles have been a constant presence in the Open Division Playoffs since its inception in 2020, and they are looking to get over the hump this year and capture their first Section Title as the Open Champs. Clovis West will have some big challenges ahead, as they play in the Tarkanian Classic in Las Vegas next week and the Modesto Christian Holiday Classic the week after Christmas Day. Clovis North, as well as the Central Grizzlies, will provide tough challenges to winning the TRAC League, but at the moment, the Golden Eagles look poised for the challenges ahead and it would be a huge surprise if they were not one of the four teams seeded in the Open Division for the Sectional Playoffs.
3.) Clovis North Broncos (9-1):
The Clovis North Broncos come in as the 3rd seed, as they have gotten off to a hot start, with their only loss coming at the hands of TRAC rival Clovis West at The Nike Invitational. The Broncos will have at least two more chances in league to get revenge for the tough triple overtime loss to the Golden Eagles, but Clovis North made a major statement Thursday, December 9th, at the Nike Invitational. The Broncos handed CalHi Sports #6 ranked team in the state, the Modesto Christian Crusaders, their first loss of the season, and won in impressive fashion, 77-56. Super sophomore Jamari Phillips and standout junior B.J. Davis were in foul trouble early, and never were able to get going offensively. But that is not to take away anything from the Broncos impressive win over a highly ranked Crusader squad with multiple D1 prospects. The Broncos played great team basketball, kept the energy up from start to finish, answered every comeback with a counter run of their own, and everyone played their role to earn one of the bigger upsets of the young season. The Broncos have been led by the backcourt duo of super sophomore guard Connor Amundsen, averaging 21 points and 4 assists per game, and standout senior Niko Jones, 14 points and 4 assists per game, who have been a steadying presence for a very young roster. Amundsen had 34 points to lead the Broncos over the Bullard Knights in the semifinals, and 33 points in the tough loss to Clovis West in the championship game of the Nike Invitational. Standout sophomore Jordan Espinoza has proven to be a solid 3rd scoring option, with 14 points and 5 rebounds per game, and one of the team’s top rebounders that brings a physicality and mental toughness opponents have a hard time matching. Freshman sharp shooter Loukas Jones, younger brother of Niko Jones, has been a key piece early on, and has shown why he is one of the top 5 freshman prospects in the Central Section. Junior Jaylen Bryant has been big on the glass for the Broncos, and the depth and understanding of the roles that players need to play for the Broncos to have success has been fun to watch for such a young roster. The win over Modesto Christian, and San Joaquin losing to the Crusaders at the NorCal Tip-Off Classic in Dublin on November 27th, is the reason I have ranked Clovis North over San Joaquin Memorial. Although the Broncos are a young team, and I predicted that they would struggle to get a spot in the Open Division for a 3rd straight year, after what I have seen the first 10 games of the season I am pretty confident that Clovis North will be back to play for a chance to finally get into the Open Division Championship Game.
4.) San Joaquin Memorial Panthers/Fresno (5-2):
Rounding out the top four teams at the #4 spot is the San Joaquin Memorial Panthers of Fresno. The Panthers have been a staple program in the Central Section for years, and are the only team to play in both Open Division Championship Games, winning the inaugural Open Division Championship in 2020. The Panthers have been led by the Central Section’s top prospect and Fresno State commit 6’5” guard Joseph Hunter. Given Hunter’s status as a nationally ranked prospect, the Panthers will play some very tough competition throughout the preseason in some nationally recognized tournaments. The first of these events was the NorCal Tip-Off Classic held at Dublin High School in Northern California, where the Panthers took on the highly ranked Modesto Christian Crusaders squad. Despite a huge scoring output from Hunter, 32 points, San Joaquin fell to the Crusaders 87-71. This loss, and Clovis North’s win over the Crusaders this past week, is the reason I have the Broncos ranked ahead of the Panthers. The Panthers rolled into the Clovis West match-up with wins over the Hoover Patriots and the Bakersfield Christian Eagles, but fell short to Golden Eagles in the Semifinals of the Clovis West Nike Invitational, 68-62. San Joaquin finished the weekend off by defeating the Bullard Knights, 77-58, behind a monster 36 point game for Hunter. Hunter has been the leading catalyst for the Panthers for the 3rd season in a row, and has put up huge scoring numbers through seven games, with a season high of 40 points against Hanford West Huskies and an average of 30 points per game to start off his senior campaign. The Panthers have added junior guard Amari Carraway, who is starting to get situated in his role and had his season high of 25 points in a win over Bakersfield Christian. Carraway and Hunter make for one of the most prolific scoring backcourts in California, and have good balance in the post with 6’7” junior forward Mike Davis Jr. Davis has been a double-double machine early, which was headlined by his 31 point and 16 rebound game against Hoover. San Joaquin has arguably the best trio in the Section, but lack the depth and defensive prowess they have had in previous years. However, as long as Hunter is on the roster, the Panthers should be a lock to get back to the Open Division for Sectional Playoffs and a heavy favorite to win their league. The Panthers have an extremely tough schedule over the next two weeks, as they will play in the Tarkanian Classic next week, and the Damien Classic the week after Christmas Day, in which they will play some elite competition.
5.) Bakersfield Christian Eagles (5-2):
The Eagles fall just outside the top four and land at the 5th spot with some impressive wins against good competition in the Central Section. The Eagles have wins over Buchanan, Hoover, Central of Fresno, Sanger, and Edison of Fresno. Their only two losses came in a rematch game with Hoover, less than a week after beating them, and to San Joaquin Memorial, as both came in the Clovis West Nike Invitational. Bakersfield Christian has been led by standout senior guard/wing Jackson Tucker, who has been on a mission to assert himself as one of the top players in the Section. Tucker opened the season with two 31 point games and a 24 point game, before coming back to earth with 12 points in the loss to Hoover. Tucker bounced back with a big 22 points against San Joaquin Memorial, as he held his own against Joseph Hunter. Tucker is averaging 25 points per game and is making an early argument for MVP of the South Valley. Standout senior guard Erick Chaney has also played a huge part in the early part of the season for the Eagles. Chaney, one of the best three point shooters in California, has shown growth in his game and it has allowed him to show more versatility in his scoring ability. Chaney has scored over 20 points twice this season, and is averaging 19 points per game. He and Tucker are one of the best one-two scoring punches in the Section, and will look to keep their scoring numbers high throughout the season, as the Eagles have a very tough schedule. Senior guard Zach Hiebert has been effective, chipping in 10 points per game, and the Eagles will get back junior Charlie Stump and standout sophomore Bentley Waller in the near future (both out with injury). The ceiling for Bakersfield Christian this season is the Open Division, but if they end up in Division 1 for the Sectional Playoffs, they will have a great chance to win the Championship.
6.) Bullard Knights/Fresno (4-3):
The Knights have gotten off to a solid start this season, with their three losses to teams ranked ahead of them in this list (two losses to Clovis North and one to San Joaquin Memorial). Bullard has wins over Independence of Bakersfield (80-70), Buchanan (51-39), Birmingham of Lake Balboa (67-58), and Merced (67-57). Seniors Tyric Herod and Lejuan Watts have led the charge for the Knights, both scoring in the double digits for the season. Watts has been dominant on the glass, as well as being a facilitator out of the post. Senior Kyle Shinn has really stepped up his role as a deep threat, to go along with the sharp shooting of Herod, to space the floor. Sophomore Jaleel Jackson has also been solid at the point, and when sophomore David Rios returns from injury, the Knights will prove a tough game for most teams in the Section.
7.) Centennial Golden Hawks/Bakersfield (8-5):
The Golden Hawks have been hitting the road early and often to start off the season. After opening up with a big win over Pioneer Valley of Santa Maria, the Golden Hawks suffered losses to two of the top four teams on this list, Clovis West and San Joaquin Memorial. After a blowout win over then perceived top 10 in the Section, the Golden Valley Bulldogs, Centennial headed to Southern California to participate in the 19th Annual Rose City Roundball Classic, in which they defeated Muir of Pasadena, and lost games to Taft of Woodland Hills, Oak Park, and Palisades. The five losses that the Golden Hawks have this season are tough competition within the Section and in the Southern Section. This past week/weekend, Centennial participated in the Morro Bay HIT Classic, where they ran through every opponent and won the tournament championship. The Golden Hawks are led by super sophomore guard/wing Rippen Gill, along with junior Elijah West, senior Blake Dibble, and sophomores Godwill Fomusoh and Jaxton Santiago. The Golden Eagles are waiting for the return of JayJay Jones, which will add a level of toughness and grit needed to make a run in the Sectional Division 1 Playoffs, if that is where they end up.
8.) Central Grizzlies/Fresno (4-3):
The Grizzlies are another team that has been on the move in the early going this season. The Grizzlies opened up the season destroying Paso Robles by a score of 90-20. The Grizzlies came back to earth with a loss to St. Joseph, but followed that with a win over Mission Prep the following day. Central has additional wins over Edison of Stockton and Folsom in the Stockton Children’s Classic this past week/weekend. The Grizzlies suffered a loss to eventual tournament champs Inderkum of Sacramento, as well as an away game loss to Bakersfield Christian. The Grizzlies have five players averaging approximately 10 points per game, in seniors Terik Streets, Marquise Green, and Marques Green, and juniors LaDainian Streets and Henry Madden III. Juniors Dylan Swillis and senior Aaron Scruggs have also been key contributors early in the season. The Grizzlies are an athletic and lengthy team that likes to feast on turnovers and push the tempo in the open court. I am interested to see how they stack up against Clovis West and Clovis North in league play, as well as against the team I have ranked below them in Buchanan.
9.) Buchanan Bears/Clovis (4-4):
The Bears have had a few impressive wins this season, and their losses have been to teams that are all ranked ahead of them in this list. The Bears are much improved from last year, and do a great job of moving the basketball, attacking the paint, and finding open shooters. The Bears have wins over Independence of Bakersfield, Liberty of Bakersfield, Edison of Fresno, and Pitman of Turlock. Buchanan has suffered losses to really good teams, in Lincoln of Stockton with San Diego State commit Miles Byrd, Bullard, Bakersfield Christina, and Modesto Christian. The Bears key players have been senior Arman Rai, Matthew Mollica, and Robert Buckenberger, as well as the addition of junior Blake Freeman. The Bears are currently a tier below Clovis West and Clovis North in the TRAC league, but they shoot the 3 ball well enough and when clicking on all cylinders they could make some noise in league play and in the postseason, depending on what division they end up playing in.
10.) Independence Falcons/Bakersfield (4-4):
The Falcons round out the Top 10, and have leveled up big time this season, as they play one of the toughest schedules in the Central Section. The strength of schedule got even more difficult, as the Falcons were added to the Clovis West Nike Invitational due to Lincoln of San Francisco dropping out. The Falcons have wins over Hoover, Roosevelt of Fresno, Sanger, and Porterville. They have fallen to Clovis West, Buchanan, and Bullard, which were all close games. The loss to Edison is a bad loss, but given that standout senior Cameron Brown did not play due to an ankle injury, I am not holding this loss against them enough to drop them from the top 10. Independence has been led by standout senior Cameron Brown, averaging 19 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists per game. Along with Brown has been the solid post play of senior Kyriaun Davis, going for 11 points and 10 rebounds a game. Other key players have been senior guard Michael Pineda, junior Tyron Tyler Jr., and freshman phenom Gabe Gutierrez. Despite some tough losses to some really good teams early on, the strength of the Falcons schedule should get them prepared to have success in league play and give Bakersfield Christian a run for their money.
11.) Hoover Patriots/Fresno (1-4):
The Patriots have started off with a really tough schedule this season. Although their record is below .500, they have played teams on this list ranked ahead of them and battled with them all well. They are starting to click as a team, and with the addition of senior Jaylen Walton, who is one of the most shifty point guards in the Central Section, the Patriots are starting to look like a team that can make some noise in the postseason this year. The Patriots’ 4 losses came against Weston Ranch of Stockton, Bakersfield Christian, San Joaquin Memorial, and Independence of Bakersfield. However, Hoover got to split with one of those losses by defeating Bakersfield Christian in the Clovis West Nike Invitational. With senior Anthony Swillis and Marlon Haggard putting up points, and the return of sophomore guard ZJ cotton, the Patriots have a team that can make some noise in the postseason this year. They are likely to be seeded in a higher division if they win their league, which I would have them as odds on favorites, but they have the players and the various pieces to compete at the Division 1 level if they were to end up that high.
12.) Dinuba Emperors (10-1):
The Emperors are off to a hot start as they have only lost one game by one single point. They have won two tournaments already including their own tournament hosted this past weekend defeating the Lemoore Tigers, and winning the 70th Annual Kingsburg Lions Club Tournament by defeating Stockdale Mustangs of Bakersfield 53-51. The Emperors are led by senior lead guard Isaiah Martinez and senior guard Cristian Contreras, and a cast of well-coached players that understand how to play basketball. They keep relentless pressure on the ball the entire game. Their signature win was against the Stockdale Mustangs and although they do not play the most rigorous schedule in comparison to the larger programs; given the restructuring of the playoff system they are likely to be moved up in a higher division than in previous seasons. However, I feel this team is capable of pulling upsets and making a run if that were to be the case.
13.) West Bakersfield Vikings (6-0):
The Vikings are coming off a big win against the Paraclete Spirits of Lancaster. The Vikings have started the season off 6-0 and had an extremely impressive win over league rival the Golden Valley Bulldogs of Bakersfield in the semifinals of the Lloyd Williams tournament at North High School of Bakersfield. Senior guard for Golden Valley, Jlen Slaughter put on his own show with 32 points, despite his team’s loss. The Vikings have been led by senior lead guard Stephon Brooks who went off against Golden Valley for 38 points in a double overtime win that put his team into the championship game. The Vikings did not have their star player and best scorer in the championship game, but junior guard Gustavo Chavez, senior Ali Ramirez, and standout sophomore ZyKavious Reese along with the rest of the team got out with a 51-50 win over the Spirits. That was the first two times I was able to watch the Vikings, and they are much better than I anticipated. However, they will only go as far as Brooks is healthy. But given their win over the Bulldogs and the Spirits, and being undefeated, I had to move them into the top 15.
14.) Stockdale Mustangs/Bakersfield (7-1):
The Mustangs have looked solid to start the season and their only loss came in the Kingsburg Lions Club Tournament Championship Game against Dinuba, by a score of 53-51. The Mustangs’ key wins have been over the South Bakersfield Spartans, the Kingsburg Vikings, and the Kerman Lions. The Mustangs have been led by junior guard Jhase Boston, and senior forward Adeola Adekoba. Both have led the team in scoring and rebounds, and have served as a solid one-two combination of perimeter and post play. Sophomore guard Dawson Brooks has also looked impressive, and the Mustangs hope to get back standout junior Joaquin Rios, who is out with an injury. If he is able to return for the season, the Mustangs could make a run at the Southwest Yosemite League title.
T-15.) Hanford Bullpups (8-3):
The Bullpups start to the season has been positive and have been highlighted by earning a semifinal spot in the Dinuba High School Tournament. The Bullpups have key wins over the Frontier Titans of Bakersfield, the Hanford West Huskies, and the Nipomo Titans. The Bullpups losses were to the Dinuba Emperors, the Lemoore Tigers, and the Tulare Western Mustangs. Hanford canceled out the loss to the Mustangs by defeating Tulare Western in the 3rd Place Game at the Dinuba Tournament this past Saturday. The Bullpups have been led by seniors Noah Noyola and Nathan Jaureguizar, along with a solid supporting cast that plays solid team basketball.
T-15) Frontier Titans/Bakersfield (5-1):
The Titans have looked good to start the season and their only loss came to the Hanford Bullpups in the Dinuba High School Tournament. The Titans have key wins over Sanger, Immanuel, East Bakersfield, Hanford West, and Tulare Union. Frontier has been led by standout senior lead guard Tyler Silva and super sophomore Zykiar Henderson, who was selected to the Dinuba High School Tournament All-Tournament Team this past weekend. The Titans have a nice surrounding cast in seniors Elijah Saavedra and Cooper Sherrill that space the floor from the 3 point line, and Ndifor Ginyui is dominant on the boards with his elite bounce. The Titans will look to win the Southwest Yosemite League, which is as open as it has been in a long time, as the Bakersfield Drillers are not as dominant as they have been. Centennial will be the front-runners in this league, but the Titans have a solid duo that can hang with any team in the South Valley.
McLane Highlanders/Fresno (7-2)
Clovis East Timberwolves (4-3)
Roosevelt Rough Riders/Fresno (3-1)
Sanger Apaches (5-6)
Mission Prep Royals/San Luis Obispo (3-2)
Lemoore Tigers (8-3)