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Mission Viejo's Zeller gets across his talking points
MISSION VIEJO – Evan Zeller was shooting in the Mission Viejo gym the day before a December game when coach Troy Roelen approached him with a proposition: break the school's single-game scoring record.
The normally talkative Zeller was briefly quieted.
"I was shocked," he said.
Zeller eventually responded, and Roelen was reminded why he had offered the senior combination guard the chance to go after an individual objective.
"He said, 'Let's get the win first. If it happens, it happens,'" Roelen said.
"There's some humility there. He doesn't care. All he cares about is winning. It's just points."
Fifty of them, to be exact.
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Zeller hung half a hundred points against University the next day, breaking the school record of 49 set by Travis Niesen in 2002.
Zeller scored 40 in the first half and added 10 more in the opening minutes of the third quarter before exiting the game for good. He made 24 of 29 field-goal attempts in the Diablos' 115-50 victory.
Zeller had never scored that many points before.
"I was in a rhythm," Zeller said. "That rhythm never broke."
That more or less sums up Zeller's high school career. Well before he stepped foot in a Mission Viejo classroom, Zeller, who lives within walking distance of the school and is the younger brother of two Diablos alums, was lurking on the premises.
"He couldn't get enough gym time," Roelen said. "He's in here all the time shooting. All he wants to do is get better. We knew he was going to be good."
Zeller was good enough to make varsity team as a freshman. Roelen liked the idea of surrounding his future star — he averaged about 12 minutes a game — with a talented, senior-laden bunch that went on to win the South Coast League title.
"I thought that would be really beneficial for Evan to learn from them, so he could carry that torch the next three years," Roelen said.
In time, Zeller morphed into a walking, talking student of the game. He started as a sophomore and earned All-County third-team honors as a junior, all the while slowly developing into a coach on the court for the Diablos.
"I'm always talking," said Zeller, who can be heard throughout games calling out plays, screens and assignments. "I'm just somebody who's hyper all the time. I'm just never silent. I have to always be saying something. I try to be that plug that lights everyone up."
The Diablos won the league title the past two seasons but lost in the CIF-Southern Section finals each year. After Mission Viejo lost to Mater Dei in the 2012 state regional tournament, a defeated but determined Zeller took his dedication to another level.
He employed a six-days-a-week training regimen, followed by AAU games and another month of training before rejoining his Mission Viejo teammates for the 2012-13 season.
"I'm trying to get to the next level," Zeller said. "It's not just going from high school to college. My role is to help everyone be successful on our team, even for the players for the following years."
Mission Viejo (19-2) entered Friday's play ranked No. 3 in the county and No.6 in CIF-SS Division 1AA. Zeller's per-game averages have improved across the board from last season — 23.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.4 steals, with shooting percentages of 57.2 from the field, 80.5 on free throws and 45.1 from 3-point range.
Frank Burlison, a longtime local basketball observer and a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame, says of Zeller: "Best in Orange County, other than Stanley (Johnson of Mater Dei)."
Zeller has begun to attract quite a bit of recruiting attention in the past month, with Tulane, UC Irvine and UC Riverside among those interested. Zeller said getting the right scholarship offer remains a tertiary goal.
"I want my fourth league title," Zeller said. "That's what my major goal is. After that I'll worry about CIF. After CIF, I'll worry about college recruiting."
Mission Viejo is trying to become the first public school to win four consecutive South Coast League titles. First, the Diablos have to get by El Toro, which handed them their lone league loss, 73-72, on Jan. 11.
Zeller, who made the clinching free throws in a victory against Aliso Niguel two days before the El Toro game, missed an 18-footer in the final seconds of the loss to the Chargers. The teams meet again Wednesday night at Mission Viejo.
"I'm ready for them," Zeller said, before cutting himself off. "Our whole team is."
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