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Esperanza senior Kezie Okpala is considered by some the top returning player in the county this season. He recently signed with Stanford. (Photo by Sam Gangwer , Orange County Register/SCNG)

Boys basketball preview: Esperanza's Okpala ready to lead

STAFF WRITER

Kezie Okpala has grown into his role as a senior leader for the Esperanza basketball team.

Okpala was 6-foot-2 as a sophomore. Now he is 6-8.

“Kezie started for us his sophomore year,” Esperanza coach Mark Hill said. “He was a pretty good player with good ball-handling skills. While he’s grown, he’s not only maintained those ball-handling skills, he’s improved his ball-handling skills.”

BOYS BASKETBALL PREVIEW

Okpala was All-Orange County first team last season when he averaged 23 points and eight rebounds a game. He was Crestview League player of the year. Okpala signed with Stanford this month.

Okpala is part of a promising Esperanza team. Four returning Aztecs were All-Century Conference last season: seniors Garrett Geiger, Travis Kettering and Jared Obermeier and junior Brendan Harrick.

Okpala knows there is room for improvement if he is to be a team leader.

“I have to play at 100 percent, all the time,” Okpala said before a recent practice. “I can’t take breaks. I need to be a more consistent shooter.”

Hill agreed, especially about Okpala’s shooting.

“He needs better consistency at the 3-point shot,” Hill said. “He has his streaks. During the summer, sometimes he couldn’t throw a pea in the ocean and then he’d hit 10 in a row.”

Okpala’s growth, physically and basketball-wise, continues.

MIGHTY MONARCHS

Mater Dei is at its usual position at No. 1 in the Orange County preseason top 10.The Monarchs are ranked No. 4 in California by CalHiSports.com.

Among the returnees from last season’s 27-5 team are junior point guard Spencer Freedman, who was All-County first team last season, and fifth-team forward Justice Sueing.

Monarchs coach Gary McKnight is enjoying this group.

“They’re just a delight to coach,” said McKnight, in his 35th season coaching Mater Dei. “It’s really a cohesive group.”

Capistrano Valley coach Brian Mulligan sees the same attributes.

“They have a lot of pieces,” Mulligan said, “and those pieces work really well together.”

NOTES

• Foothill coach Rusty Van Cleave suffered a stroke last month. He is making progress in all areas, remains involved in practice planning and hopes to resume coaching full-time soon. Jeff Gomez, a longtime assistant at Foothill, is in charge until Van Cleave’s return.

• The CIF-Southern Section again will have an Open Division in the playoffs. The Open Division “watch list,” which is a group of teams that are Open Division candidates, will be released soon.

• Among the early-season tournaments that begin Monday are the Canyon/Esperanza Tip-Off Classic, the Buena Park Coyote Classic, the Grizzly Invitational at Godinez, the Jim Harris Memorial Tournament of Champions at Ocean View and the Diablo Inferno at Mission Viejo. The Chick-fil-A Tipoff Classic at Crean Lutheran begins Saturday.

• Transfers have improved Edison’s roster. Josh Phillips, a 6-8 junior, transferred from Newport Harbor. Brothers Matt and Spencer Serven transferred from Fountain Valley.

• Another transfer of note: Senior point guard Joseph Riley, who moved from Orange Lutheran to Los Alamitos.

• Besides Okpala at Esperanza, teams that have 2015-16 league MVPs returning include Laguna Beach (Blake Burzell), Crean Lutheran (Michael Bagatourian), Sonora (Kevin Marlow) and Saddleback Valley Christian (Trey Smith).

• Pacifica Christian, a private school in Newport Beach, is playing its first varsity season. The Tritons’ coach is Jeff Berokoff, who has been coach at El Modena and was an All-O.C. player at Sonora. Berokoff predicts that Pacifica Christian point guard Dominick Harris will be among the better freshmen in Southern California.

• Among the offseason coaching changes was the hiring of Zach Brogdon at JSerra, where he replaces Joedy Gardner. Brogdon coached Capistrano Valley Christian to three league championships and three CIF-SS semifinals appearances in six seasons.

Contact the writer: sfryer@scng.com


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