After losing its entire starting five to graduation, the Laguna Beach High School basketball team is, perhaps for the first time in the nine-year history of the Orange Coast League, not favored to win the title.
That distinction, by all accounts, belongs to Godinez and its 6’ 5” UC Irvine recruit Brandon Smith and his 25 points-per-game average. “They’re kind of where we usually are sitting,” said Laguna Coach Brett Fleming. “The tables have kind of turned a little bit this year.”
Still, on the eve of the team’s 10-game league season, the program’s all-time winningest coach isn’t about to concede anything. “We’ve won it eight straight years, and you’ve got to go through us to get it,” he said. “We’re certainly not going to hand it to anybody.”
With only four players returning from last year’s team, the 2015
Breakers will have to be on their game every time out in order to capture a ninth straight title. They open league play Wednesday, Jan. 14 at Costa Mesa.
Offsetting the exodus of seven seniors from last season’s 23-6 squad is a crop of newcomers that Fleming calls “one the better freshman classes we’ve had.”
One senior, seven juniors, one sophomore and two freshmen make up one of the youngest teams in Fleming’s 19 years at the helm. And one of those freshmen, Blake Burzell, is not only starting, he’s also the team’s leading scorer. “I’m a competitor. I feel I can play with anyone,” said Burzell, who, at 6’ 4”, looks and plays beyond his years.
“He’s just been a terrific kid,” said Fleming. “He’s a really hard worker. Competes every day. Has a lot of confidence, and really has a lot of upside.”
Burzell credits Fleming with helping him refine his outside shot to compliment his inside game. And in Fleming’s motion offense, which is designed to give players as many open looks as possible, Burzell has been lighting up the scoreboard. “My goal coming in was to score about 300 points this season,” he said.
Through the team’s first 17 games, Burzell has already racked up 277 points, averaging 16.3 per game. With 11 more games to play in the regular season, if Burzell maintains his current pace, he will eclipse Cheyne Martin’s (’07) freshman record of 398 points set in 2004 over 24 games. But Burzell will need to pick up the pace a bit to break Martin’s 16.6 freshman average. “It doesn’t really matter to me about points,” said Burzell. “I just want to win league.”
Junior point guard Isaac Wulff is the team’s most experienced starter, having played in 24 of 29 games last season as the first man off the bench. He missed four of the team’s first five games this year due to broken finger on his shooting hand.
Still sporting a splint, Wulff has been putting up big numbers since his return, averaging 15.5 over 13 games. “It’s big for the team that he’s stepped up and playing when he’s not 100 percent,” said Fleming.
Having logged extensive minutes with last year’s senior-laden squad, Wulff knows better than anyone what it’s going to take for this young team to be successful. “We have a small margin for error,” he said. “I think it’s really going to be a team effort. All 10 guys have to bring their best game every single night.”
Junior Darin Richardson is third on the team in scoring at just
under eight points per game. He is one of the four returning players from last season and credits that experience with his success so far this year. “Practicing with those guys day in and day out made me better,” he said. “It made me recognize that hard work is key.”
Filling out the lineup are players who can make a difference, such as junior Spencer Wong, the team’s strongest defender, said Fleming.
During Laguna’s final game of the Under Armour Holiday Classic last month against Madison (San Diego), Wong repeatedly sacrificed his body for the team. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a kid take five charges in a game,” said Fleming. “He’s absolutely a team-first kid. Does whatever it takes to help us win.”
Charlie Rounaghi, the team’s other freshman, is fourth in scoring at 5.5 points per game. “He plays a pretty big role for a freshman guard,” said Fleming. “He’s kind of a little guy. About 5-10 and maybe a buck thirty. But he’s got a terrific basketball IQ.”
Junior Nick Rahder, a 6’4” 230 lb. rebounding specialist who averages just under four points per game, is another key component in Fleming’s multi-faceted offense. And Samiar Tehrani, the team’s only senior, has returned from last year’s team to average 5.2 over nine games.
All the talk of this being a rebuilding year doesn’t mean a thing to Fleming. “Our goals don’t change because we’re young,” he said.
He even thinks lowered expectations can have a positive effect on his team. “Sometimes it’s good to have a little bit of a chip on your shoulder,” he said. “Sometimes that can bring a team together.”
As for Richardson, he’s not having any of that “rebuilding” nonsense. “I don’t want to win a year from now. I want to win now,” he said.
Frank Aronoff contributed to this story.