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Montgomery the team to beat


The outlook on the 2013-14 North Bay League boys basketball season, according to a handful of coaches, is pretty simple: It's a crapshoot among seven teams and there won't be any nights off this season

And then there's Montgomery.

The Vikings lost only four players — one starter — and have one of the Empire's best in Alec Raven, but you can't tell Vikings coach Tom Fitchie that his team's the favorite.

"I'd rather be there than be at the bottom, but coaches always want to do that," Fitchie said. "Maybe try and put a little bit more pressure on that team, maybe sort of a head kind of game or something like that and see if the team buys into it, and maybe starts believing the press and believing the things they hear. Which is fine. I've been around long enough to know. I understand where that's coming from and we fully accept the challenge if that's where they want to put us."

Here's how the NBL stacks up this season:

Casa Grande Gauchos

Last season: 14-14 overall, 7-7 NBL

Overview: The Gauchos' fourth-place finish in league last season wasn't too bad for a team that coach James Forni said was very young.

"They had a year of learning and sometimes we were making big plays, sometimes they weren't," he said. "We were very inexperienced."

A look at last year's standings shows Casa Grande beat most of the teams it was supposed to beat — all the teams that finished below it in the league standings — but managed to record only one victory against the three teams that finished at the top of the league.

Player to watch: Cetrick Yeaney's junior year was far from disappointing. The guard averaged 15.9 points per game last season.

"He's got to be the guy who sets the tone for us," Forni said.

Yeaney's off to a good start this year, and he hit the game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer for the Gauchos in a thrilling 48-47 victory against Foothill of Pleasanton on Saturday.

Santa Rosa Panthers

Last season: 9-17, 5-9

Overview: It has been a slow climb up the win column for the Panthers, who won two more games in league play last season than in 2011. Coach John McGill has enjoyed victories in the preseason against fellow North Coast Section Division 1 school Antioch and Division 2 Vintage, but also suffered a blowout defeat at the hands of Newman.

Players to watch: McGill has two post players who could be difference makers.

McGill said 6-foot-6 center Dustin Rome and 6-4 forward Daniel Crestin have been preparing hard.

"Both those guys did a lot of work in the offseason," McGill said. "They've put a lot of work in. They put a lot of work in during the summer."

Rome led the NBL in blocked shots, McGill said. Rome and Crestin are the highest-scoring returners from last season and both led the team in rebounds last season.

The Panthers didn't win a game in 2010, but if they can again increase their number of wins from the previous season, they probably won't be treated like an afterthought anymore.

Ukiah Wildcats

Last season: 17-11, 10-5

Overview: The Wildcats finished third in the NBL last season but failed to defeat Montgomery or Cardinal Newman, the only two teams with a better league record. Ukiah lost to Concord 67-58 in the first round of the NCS Division 1 playoffs.

Coach Bill Heath said he's focusing on building camaraderie this season, but he's working with only two returning players, and only one who's starting.

"On a good day we can come in third; on a bad we can come in eighth," he said. "But there are probably three or four teams that can say that."

A 5-2 record in nonleague play isn't a bad way to start.

Players to watch: Brian Sherwood is one of the returning starters, but he's coming off the bench this season, due to a football injury in the fall. He can only play and practice half the time, according to Heath, but that's exactly how the coach wants it.

"He's a weapon we haven't had in the past," Heath said. "He'd be a starter now if he wasn't injured."

Heath says Sherwood has no complaints about coming off the bench.

"His attitude has been great. Everybody appreciates that," Heath said.

Montgomery Vikings

Last season: 23-9, 12-2

Overview: Vikings coach Tom Fitchie has made it clear — front-runner or not — his team will miss the players who graduated.

"But you got to hope some of the returners that didn't get as many minutes and some of the kids that are coming up from JVs can give us those same quality minutes," he said.

But the goals for Montgomery — to win league, the section and state title — never change no matter the season or situation.

"We don't really spend a lot of time on it," he said. "They just sort of know that by being in the program."

Player to watch: Senior forward Alec Raven has a chance to be one of the highest scorers in the North Coast Section. He notched 30 points in a victory against California and 40 in defeating Campolindo, a team many expect to contend in the postseason.

"That's a lot of points," Fitchie said. "It just happened to click for him. He felt good and the guys were getting him the ball."

Raven was brought back down to earth in a close loss to Monte Vista, scoring only nine.

Cardinal Newman Cardinals

Last season: 32-4, 14-0

Overview: The reset button has been hit at Cardinal Newman. Coach Tom Bonfigli graduated nine of his first 10 players, and comes into this season with just four seniors and 11 first-year players.

It surely isn't the team that went to the state championship last season.

"The biggest challenge this year for us is concentrating on the fact that we need to play our 'A' game in every single game or we can lose, and it doesn't matter who that team is," Bonfigli said.

The Cardinals were 2-3 at one point in the preseason, but Bonfigli said he's not panicking. They're now 4-4.

"I've had teams that have not won 25 or 30 games in my coaching career," he said. "I've had young teams, and I've had less-talented teams. I think you've got to have patience, you've got to keep coaching, and you have to stay positive. I mean, I've been doing this for a few years.

"We've been here before. The guys will respond to the adversity. We'll see how we do."

Players to watch: Connor Head and James Ryan are the two returners who actually played on varsity last season. Bonfigli said his team has 16 players, kids he says "that are close."

By the time league play rolls around, Bonfigli says the young team might be well prepared.

"I think we'll be deeper than most teams in our league by the time that we get there," he said. "Maybe not now, but we'll get there."

Rancho Cotate Cougars

Last season: 1-25, 0-14

Overview: The Cougars can only improve in the win column, and coach Dennis Magatelli thinks he sees something new from this season's team of four sophomores, four juniors and four seniors.

"There's a chemistry there amongst the players that's really clicking," he said.

Coaches around the NBL expect Rancho Cotate to be much improved this year.

"It's flattering to hear we're a team to watch, but we're a work in progress," Magatelli said.

The Cougars are slowly working their way up, with two of their four preseason losses by fewer than four points. So what's the goal this year?

"To win 13 games," Magatelli said. "We want to make the playoffs. We want to sneak in the playoffs."

Player to watch: Magatelli said 6-0 guard Ryan Sousa is the most experienced on the roster. He currently leads the team with 3.7 assists through six games of the preseason.

"He brings a certain amount of maturity and calmness to the team," Magatelli said. "As a senior, I expect that."

Windsor Jaguars

Last season: 10-16, 4-10

Overview: Jaguars coach Travis Taylor says he knew what he was getting into when he signed up to be the Windsor basketball coach, but challenges are all he's ever known.

"I really don't know anything different," he said. "I like the grind and trying to max out your potential … I think we can play with anybody."

That being said, he knows the rest of the league might be able to do that, too.

"I think every team in the league is better than they were last year … There's no room for error for us," Taylor said.

"We have to play hard, every single possession. Grind, execute, defend, and then finish it down the stretch. I don't think we're going to go in there and beat anybody by 30 points this year, but keep it close, execute until the end, you deserve to win."

Player to watch: Taylor expects the team to be well balanced. The Jaguars captains will be center Sadik Sufi and point guard Connor McAlvain. They will have to work to fill the absence of last year's leading scorer Casey Meyer, who averaged 17.3 points per game.

Maria Carrillo Pumas

Last season: 9-17, 5-10

Overview: The Pumas are off to a 6-3 start in nonleague play and coach Will Parker is eager for NBL play to start.

"It's looking positive," he said. "It's looking a lot stronger than last year, and we're looking forward to league coming up."

Parker has four starters returning from last season.

"Our whole starting five is pretty solid," he said. "It just depends who's going to dominate that night."

The goal for Carrillo is to make the NBL tournament.

"For this particular team, it's incredibly important that they start playing like a team," Parker said. "The last few years they've been playing as individuals.

"We want to be seen as a team, not as a pack of individuals."

Parker said Casa Grande will be a good test.

"It's going to force my guards (Ryan Parker and Jake Viter) to play tougher," he said. "Casa puts more pressure on guards than any other school we've played this year. If I can get guards going, we're going to be a pretty tough team."

Player to watch: A.J. John, who has committed to Pepperdine, was the Pumas' leading scorer last season, but Parker said guard Jake Viter is someone to keep an eye on, thanks to a hot preseason.

"The last couple of games he had 29 and 26 and didn't play in the fourth quarter," Parker said.