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Orangewood Academy: One school, 92 students, two championship games
The Garden Grove school is going after CIF titles in boys and girls hoops. Small? Think again.
GARDEN GROVE – More than 10 percent of the school’s students await their turn in the athletic director’s office, where the girls basketball players seem to be outnumbered only by every newspaper page that ever mentioned Orangewood Academy.
Steps away, a locked door is decorated with a sign listing the usual gym prohibitions: No food, drinks, gum or black-soled shoes.
The list should include preconceived notions.
After all, when the door is opened from the inside, it reveals a prospect with smooth moves that has started to attract Division I programs, a coach with a major-college mentor, and a 7-footer with a smile as wide as his wingspan. From Finland.
Any perception that Orangewood Academy is simply the little Seventh-day Adventist school that could disappears with the realization that the Spartans are building something here.
This weekend, only four schools in the CIF-Southern Section – a governing body that includes nearly 600 high schools – have both boys and girls basketball teams playing for section championships.
And if you look at the 100 schools in Orange County, it’s down to one: Orangewood Academy, a K-12 parochial school with 92 students in grades 9-12. More than one-third of them play basketball at some level.
The Spartans boys will play in their first championship game tonight at 7 against Hesperia Christian at Godinez High in Santa Ana. Immediately after, the Orangewood girls will try to capture their second title in four seasons, playing Ribet Academy.
“It really is a special time here,” said Leslie Aragon, the school’s longtime athletic director and girls basketball coach who used to coach the boys, too. “We know this doesn’t happen all the time, and we’re enjoying it.
“The girls already have been at a high level for a while, and to have our boys get there, too, means a lot to the Orangewood family.”
Aragon knows all about the family. He is an Orangewood graduate who understands he’ll probably never oversee an athletic empire along the lines of Mater Dei, which is 4.2 miles and a world away.
Still, Aragon envisions big things for the Spartans, even if they are accompanied by what he terms “growing pains.”
“We’ve got a lot of support, but not everybody is as excited about what we’re doing with athletics,” Aragon said. “What we’re doing is pursuing excellence.”
Excellence is nothing new for Aragon’s girls program. It’s reached the CIF-SS semifinals five times in eight seasons, making the finals three times in the past four.
The Spartans won the 2012 championship but fell in last season’s title game by 20 points to Ribet, the team they face tonight.
Orangewood Academy’s boys program, however, is in new territory. It was awarded the top seed in the Division 6 playoffs, and stormed past four postseason opponents by an average of 43 points.
“This really is everything I’ve dreamed about since I got here,” said Marcus Berkley, a senior. “We’re playing for a CIF championship and have a shot at state.”
Everything the Spartans do runs through Berkley, a 6-foot-4 guard who transferred to Orangewood Academy from Las Vegas before last season. He has the skills and height that project into major-college minutes, especially once he fills out a bit.
Division I schools have started to visit the campus on Clinton Street populated by preschoolers and point guards. Berkley does not have any scholarship offers, yet and insists he isn’t worried about it.
“I know I’m going to go to college, and that’ll take care of itself,” he said. “I’m focused on Saturday’s game.”
Orangewood boys coach Rob Brooks is optimistic that the offers will come for Berkley after the Spartans’ playoff run, which could continue into the state tournament that starts next week.
“If it’s actually possible for someone to be under the radar in Southern California basketball anymore, that’s the case with Marcus,” Brooks said. “But schools are seeing what he can do.”
Brooks is in his first season at the school after soaking in coaching knowledge wherever he could. It started with his father, Steve, a longtime Los Alamitos High coach and also former Griffins coach Russ May, whom Brooks played for in high school and coached under at Cerritos College the past three seasons.
He credits the four years he spent at USC on Tim Floyd’s staff as vital to his professional development. Floyd, now coaching at Texas-El Paso, remains Brooks’ mentor. That might have a little something to do with UTEP paying a visit this week to check out Berkley.
The Miners also got to see Orangewood’s most recent addition, 7-foot junior center Mubashar Ahmed-Ali, who arrived a little before fellow Finn Teemu Selanne’s number was lifted into the Honda Center rafters.
Not that it mattered that much to him.
“I used to skate a little when I was younger, but hockey’s not really my sport,” said Ahmed-Ali, whose transfer was approved Jan. 5 and who began playing in mid-January after sitting out a CIF-required period.
An Elvis-voiced navigation app was needed to guide someone who has worked in Orange County since the late ’90s to Orangewood Academy, so how did the player Brooks calls “Muba” find it from Finland?
He explained that his godfather, Daiman Johnson, kept telling his parents that they needed to send Ahmed-Ali to the United States, where he could develop as a basketball player.
“It wasn’t easy on my mother,” he said. “She didn’t want her son going so far away.”
Once Johnson and Ahmed-Ali won the debate, he said Johnson found the school for him. It’s along the lines of how UC Irvine’s 7-foot-6 center from Senegal, Mamadou Ndiaye, ended up at Brethren Christian – a quiet place where he could be a regular student – instead of a basketball powerhouse.
Ahmed-Ali is a raw talent who is adapting to an American style of play that is far more physical than what he experienced in Europe. But he has the one basketball asset that can’t be coached: height.
He also is the reason Orangewood Academy might sustain this success beyond Berkley’s graduation.
“We’re not at that point yet where there’s a big waiting list to get into the school like some others have,” Aragon, the athletic director and girls coach said. “But more people are paying attention to what we’re doing.
“If we continue to build on what we’ve accomplished, that only will increase. Most of all, we’re just enjoying this while we can.”
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