Congratulations to the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s own Crespi Carmelite Celts and St. Bernard Vikings for their outstanding basketball seasons.
After winning its first state championship in school history at the Division IV level last season, Crespi upped the stakes this year by entering the Division I state playoff tournament. Despite the greatly enhanced level of competition, the Celts once again emerged victorious for their second consecutive state title with a statement win over Berkeley.
The Vikings entered the season looking to build upon their performance last season in the Division V state playoff tournament, in which they advanced to the second round before falling to Viewpoint. After valiantly navigating their way through the regular season in the immensely challenging Del Rey League, St. Bernard surpassed its results from last season by a landslide, advancing all the way to the final before losing a hotly contested battle with St. Joseph - Notre Dame to finish as state runner-up.
Here is a look back at both teams’ seasons:
Final record: 33-4; 10-2 in Mission League play
Season summary: With the core of its cast from the Division IV state championship team returning this season, most notably USC-bound small forward and last season’s Division IV State Player of the Year DeAnthony Melton and big man Mitch Mykhaylov, expectations were very high this season for Crespi. While the team experienced a very brief “championship hangover” on opening night —when it suffered a surprising 59-56 loss to lower-ranked Peninsula — Crespi lived up to and surpassed expectations, rattling off wins in its next 21 games en route to winning the Mission League regular season title.
The turning point: The Celts outlasted Mission League rival Harvard-Westlake 77-75 in a dramatic overtime thriller on the Wolverines’ home floor courtesy of a buzzer-beating baseline jump shot from sophomore point guard Brandon Williams. Under head coach Russell White, Crespi has developed a reputation as being a disciplined, gritty team that never gives up, no matter how trying the circumstances may be. That calling card was on full display as the Celts shook off the frustration of surrendering a 10-point second half lead and displayed tremendous poise in the game’s most crucial moments.
Crespi would call upon that very same capacity to remain composed in tense situations during the Division I state semi-final versus Redondo Union, when the Celts shook off a nine-point deficit at halftime to force overtime and seal the win in the extra frame by a final score of 66-63 to earn their return trip to the state final.
The championship: The finale against the Berkeley Yellowjackets would once again require Crespi to regroup and regain its composure as, after the Celts established a double-digit lead at halftime, the YellowJackets came storming back out of the tunnel to cut the deficit to just one point in the third quarter. Despite Berkeley’s valiant final stand, Crespi was visibly the better team, and it didn’t take long for the Celts to re-establish their dominance in the second half.
Melton had a monster game, leading the Crespi charge with game highs of 24 points and 17 rebounds. Mykhaylov likewise put together an impressive double-double performance with 19 points and 13 rebounds. Crespi also received solid play from its backcourt, as Williams chipped in 16 points and seven rebounds, while sophomore combo guard Taj Regans dished out a team-high five assists.
The future: Though Melton, Mykhaylov and sharpshooting Billy Oxley are graduating, the future still looks bright for Crespi. Williams has improved by leaps and bounds during his first two years at the helm for the Celts, and is quickly developing into one of the most versatile point guards in the state. He will be re-joined next season by his plucky backcourt companion Regans, as well as junior Robby Hunter and sophomore Anthony Booker, key reserves who often did the “dirty work” for the Celts, such as gathering tough rebounds and generating timely defensive stops.
Coach’s quote: “That’s why we’re a solid team: we don’t have one or two guys. We have a lot of guys who can step up and make plays.” --nRussell White
Final record: 19-17; 4-4 in Del Rey League play
Season summary: St. Bernard’s guard-laden roster faced a major height disadvantage most nights, but what it lacked in size, it made up for in spades with ample quickness and tremendous heart. The Vikings’ defense, as quick and scrappy as it was disciplined and willing, often made them a tough out during the season, even in the highly competitive Del Rey League, which is considered by many to be perhaps the most talented league in the nation. Last season, the Vikings failed to earn a win in their eight in-league games. But with much of its core returning this season, St. Bernard improved greatly upon that mark, going an even 4-4 and finishing above .500 at 19-17 to earn its second consecutive at-large bid to the Division V playoffs.
The turning point: The Vikings underwent an immensely frustrating stretch midway through the season when it dropped 11 of 13 games, which included a heartbreaking overtime loss to Balboa City. A January matchup at Cantwell-Sacred Heart (which The Tidings covered earlier this season) had all the signs of becoming yet another game in the L column, as the Cardinals led by double digits virtually the entire game and appeared to have every categorical edge.
Midway through the fourth quarter, however, St. Bernard flipped the script, clawing its way back into the game thanks to its pesky full court press, a bevy of terrific drives to the hoop by senior captain Rob Fuller, clutch outside shooting from senior point guard Shane Williams and senior captain Adam Amanuel, and timely free throws from senior captain Julian Ross. Williams’ gutsy, go-ahead floater with 5.1 seconds left to play gave St. Bernard its first lead of the game, and the only one it needed, as it sealed an exhilarating 62-61 win. The Vikings would go on to finish out the season on a 9-3 spurt before beginning the state playoffs.
The championship: In the finale against St. Joseph - Notre Dame, the Pilots were scorching hot from the field in the early going, putting the Vikings in an early hole. But as it is wont to do, St. Bernard didn’t give up and once again clawed its way back, tying the game with just under six minutes left to play.
The Pilots and Vikings engaged in a back-and-forth battle duing the final frame before — with 11.1 seconds to play and the Pilots holding a slim 52-50 lead — 5-foot-5 SJND freshman Kobe Keiner subbed in to shoot free throws in place of star player Jade Smith (who was injured after being fouled on a shot attempt) and calmly knocked down both, putting the game out of reach for St. Bernard. Ross and Fuller led the Vikings with 15 points apiece in the hardfought 55-50 loss.
The future: Fuller, Ross, Williams and Amanuel are all graduating this year, as is fourth captain Rich Mabry and big man Damian Landry, who, despite being undersized, has a proclivity for frustrating much taller opponents in the post thanks to his hard-nosed defense. But the St. Bernard players who will be called upon next season to fill the roles of the departing seniors next season will certainly be excited to do so under the leadership of young head coach Mitch Runco, whose system has quite clearly been bought into by his players. “I think he’s one of the best coaches in Southern California” says Williams of Runco.
Coach’s quote: “I’m just so proud of the guys and how they competed. We’ve been talking a long time about trusting our defense and our system, trusting that, if we continue to play as hard as we can, our style of play will eventually wear teams down. I was proud of the guys sticking to the gameplan.” -- Mitch Runco