The non-league tune-ups are over, and with the New Year, the meat of the high school boys’ basketball season has arrived.
The first week of Channel League play featured the Santa Barbara versus San Marcos rivalry game, which was played at SBCC for increased seating, after hundreds of people were turned away at the door during both sold-out matchups last year. Santa Barbara junior guard Jasper Johnson sent the Sports Pavilion into a frenzy with a game-winning lay-in at the buzzer off a perfectly placed lob to the rim by Stephen Davis to secure a 45-43 victory for the Dons.
Johnson is the son of acclaimed actor, producer, and director Don Johnson, best known as the star of Miami Vice, and his flair for the dramatic gave the Dons a major leg up in the Channel League title race.
“We’re kind of getting into things and working out our offense and our defense,” Johnson said post-game. “I feel like this is our turning point, and we’re going to be really hard to beat.”
Lost in Johnson’s heroics was the rivalry game debut for Santa Barbara first-year head coach Corey Adam. The Dons got off to a rough start this season against stiff competition. Injuries and sickness contributed to the 5-6 start, but the Dons regrouped and have now won six in a row.
“Defensively, we’re pretty good right now. Offensively, we still got some work to do,” Adam said. “But they’re learning, they’re getting better, and they’re understanding.”
Expectations were sky-high for Santa Barbara coming into this season after the Dons finished 29-5, reached the CIF-SS 2A semifinals and defeated Oxnard in the opening round of the state tournament under Dave Bregante last season. Channel League co-MVPs Bryce Warrecker and Stephen Davis returned from that team in addition to Johnson, who has been on varsity since his freshman season.
The return of Johnson to the lineup after he has been sidelined for several games with various ailments has solidified the Santa Barbara lineup, and the returners are adjusting to Adam’s new style of play.
“He’s been injured and sick, and he lost about 10 pounds when he was sick. He didn’t have much weight to lose,” said Adam of Johnson. “This is Jasper’s first game in. … I can’t remember the last time he played.”
On the other side of the court, San Marcos head coach Jelani Hicks was left to wonder what could have been after the stunning finish.
Last season, Hicks was in much the same predicament that Adam is this season, replacing Landon Boucher after he led the Royals to a CIF championship. But he put together a solid season, including a second-place finish in the Channel League.
This year, San Marcos has rebounded from a 0-3 start, which included losses to Oxnard, which has a 20-1 record this season, and national powerhouse Mater Dei.
“Year two has been a good one. We have a lot of returners back from last year’s team, so just having another year with most of the same group goes a long way,” Hicks said. “They’re growing, and I’m growing as a coach, so it’s been good.”
A balanced lineup that can be led by several different players on a given night makes San Marcos a dangerous team. The Royals led Santa Barbara 38-32 going into the fourth quarter before cold shooting evaporated the lead.
“We usually do well when we move the ball around and get everybody involved. We try to get into the paint and make decisions from there,” Hicks said. “I think when we did those things we were in good position, and when we went away from those they were able to make runs.”
The rivalry has unique meaning for Hicks, who gets to see players he has watched and developed for years as a longtime youth coach in Santa Barbara thrive for both teams. “This is probably the most entertaining high school game in town,” Hicks said. “It’s always fun to be a part of it.”
With 12 players returning from last year’s team, Hicks is bullish on his team’s ability to compete for the Channel League title and is eager for the rematch against Santa Barbara on January 25.
“These are two big games that you’ll remember, and these are the ones that you want to win,” said Hicks of the rivalry. “These are big, not only for league and going into the playoffs, but for city-wide bragging rights. All of these kids grew up together and they know each other, so that’s the fun part in being able to win these games.”
PARITY REIGNS IN BOY SOCCER: After more than 70 minutes of scoreless soccer, an offensive explosion broke out in the final minutes of the San Marcos versus Santa Barbara boys’ soccer match on Saturday night at Warkentin Stadium in the finale of the Super Soccer Showdown between the two schools.
Diego Espinoza opened the scoring in the 72nd minute when he beat San Marcos goalkeeper Sam Friedman near post with a shot from just inside the 18-yard box off a free kick from Miguel Alvarado. However, the Royals immediately responded with Matt Hislop goal off a flick ahead by A.J. Ranii for the equalizer.
Santa Barbara coach Todd Heil said, “74 or 75 minutes of no goals, and then all of a sudden you get two goals and it’s a 1-1 tie. I guess at the end of the day, you might say it was probably the right result.”
Santa Barbara (12-1-3 overall, 1-0-1 Channel League) and San Marcos (8-3-5, 0-0-2) are not the only solid teams in the Channel League. Lompoc is currently tied for first place with Santa Barbara with a 1-0-1 record in Channel League, and Cabrillo is much improved.
Dos Pueblos (10-3-1) won the Hart tournament coming into league play but lost to Santa Ynez 2-0 in its league opener before rebounding with a 2-1 win over Cabrillo.
“The big thing is the number of returning players that each team has with experience from last year and the quality of those players,” Heil said. “Some of the bigger-name players from each of the programs, especially here locally, have at least a year or two of high school varsity experience.”
The Dons have been at the top of the Channel League for several years, but every team will have to bring their A-game in order to get a positive result in 2020.