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MINDY SCHAUER , STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Mission Viejo's new boys basketball coach, Chris Zeller, replaces Rob Cullinan. Zeller is an alumnus of Mission Viejo who played his senior year for the Diablos in 2006-07.

Zeller ready to re-ignite Mission Viejo basketball

STAFF WRITER

Chris Zeller can hardly contain his excitement.

Earlier this year, the bright-eyed 26-year-old was handed the keys to one of the county’s more respected basketball programs by the same man who mentored him when he was a student athlete.

With an enthusiasm second to none and five years of working under good basketball minds, Zeller is ready to reignite the Mission Viejo boys basketball program after it suffered one of the most tumultuous seasons in program history.

Zeller has plenty of reason to be motivated, having played under current Mission Viejo Athletic Director Troy Roelen for two seasons. Growing up down the street from the school, his goals for the program go beyond the court.

“The big thing for me is the community, I was born and raised in Mission Viejo. My parents still live in the same house down the street a block away,” Zeller said. “I love my time here and I want to ensure that I run the program successfully and in good light for the community and the kids.”

• • •

Zeller’s love for the game of basketball started early. His father, Robert, built a half court in the backyard out of concrete, laying the foundation for chances to bond with his sons and instill a passion for basketball.

For hours, they would shoot hoops in that backyard when Robert got home from work. Not a single day was skipped.

“If there’s someone who put a basketball in my hand every day it would be both mom (Christina) and dad,” Zeller said. “We’d shoot every night, over and over. That was before you had a gym, you just go outside and shoot.”

Zeller played two seasons at Santa Margarita before transferring to Mission Viejo to play under Roelen. Zeller’s basketball philosophy was crafted around Roelen’s ability to use his skill set to find him a role with the team during his junior and senior seasons.

In Zeller’s two seasons with Mission Viejo, the Diablos compiled a 41-15 record, winning the South Coast League title with a 10-0 mark in 2007.

“Chris had a high basketball IQ and he was versatile,” Roelen said of Zeller as a player. “He didn’t come here expecting to score 20 points per game, he understood that everyone had a role. He embraced it and was very solid.”

Zeller moved on to Arizona State University, where he found his first assistant coaching position at Arizona high school power Corona del Sol. Sun Devils assistant coach Scott Pera, who coached at Artesia High in years past, pointed Zeller toward the school, giving him an opportunity to work with Sam Duane Jr.

Zeller’s zeal for the game heightened as the Aztecs won back-to-back state titlesin 2012-13, averaging 92 points per game. They’ve since extended that streak to four straight.

“(Duane) impacted my basketball career as a coach through his philosophy,” Zeller said. “It took shape under Sammy and I really developed during my time with him there. Those were three years with a big learning curve, they really elevated my status as a coach.”

• • •

After graduating with a degree in business communications, Zeller returned to California in 2013, taking an assistant job at Trabuco Hills High under one of his previous coaches, Sean Sullens.

While Zeller was in his second year with the Mustangs, the Diablos were experiencing one of their worst seasons in recent memory and just their second losing season since 2008, when the program went 13-14.

In one season, the Diablos went from CIF-SS Division 1A runner-up to finishing 5-21 under Rob Cullinan as a result of a season slowed by football season and derailed by injuries.

“There’s no easy nights when you’re in the South Coast League, but that team was improving every night,” Zeller said.

Cullinan resigned due to medical reasons, which gave Zeller the opportunity to give back to a program that provided him a fresh start.

Though two would-be returners transferred out, Zeller is optimistic about the talent in the program. His enthusiasm is unwavering.

“(Troy) really set the tone for what public school basketball can be and my goal is to get it back up and running to that point,” Zeller said. “I think we can very soon. The kids I have are great, they’re coachable and willing to work hard.”

Zeller hopes to bring a mentality to Diablo basketball similar to Roelen’s. Everyone has a role. Everyone is needed for success.

In addition, Zeller is adding a hybrid function to his coaching style. Taking a little from Corona del Sol, Zeller hopes to make Mission Viejo a more up-tempo team, bringing an exciting brand of basketball back into the gym.

His goal for his first year is a league title, regardless of how far-fetched it may seem. Zeller has the utmost respect for every South Coast League coach and his accomplishments, but that doesn’t hinder him from his vision of developing an identity and establishing roles for his players.

“He’s come through,” Roelen said. “He understands the philosophy and what the program is all about. He’s young, energetic, lives in the community, he’s just as tied to the community as I am. He has a good moral and ethical stance.”

• • •

Community is a word oft-used in Zeller’s vocabulary when talking about his program. Being from the community, Zeller shows great pride in putting a product in play that makes it proud.

The team has moved back down to Division 2AA for the first time since the 2010-11 season, a move Roelen believes puts the program back where it belongs.

The Diablos return four from last year’s team. Two players – Connor Haskell and Hafthor Sigurdarson – transferred out of the program, while Brock Johnson is focused on football.

“We’re young and if we’re going to be competitive it’s going to be a process,” Roelen said. “We’re looking at it in terms of a marathon, but he’s doing the right things.”

Because the football program makes deep runs in the playoffs each year, Zeller will have to wait until mid-December to utilize some pieces of his roster.

Zeller recalls Diablos’ football coach Bob Johnson as one of the basketball program’s biggest supporters. Zeller’s younger brother, Zach, played varsity football under Johnson for two years.

“I want those players to enjoy their football season,” Zeller said. “After that, those guys will come in and help us put the best product on the court.”

His youngest brother, Evan, currently plays basketball at Cal State Monterey Bay after helping the Diablos to four-straight South Coast League titles under Roelen.

Chris hopes his impact is left as a longtime coach, modeling his style after the success Roelen experienced during his tenure. It’s not reinventing the wheel, he said.

“This is my dream job and I’m going to work every single day to make Mission Viejo all it can be in the basketball department,” Zeller said. “Being from the community, I want to represent it well.”

Contact the writer: 949-492-5135 or npercy@ocregister.com


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