Bellarmine and Riordan split a pair of regular-season meetings this year, and the two could meet next Wednesday in the CCS Open Division Semifinals.
Michael Ponce

CCS Open Division Preview: Familiar faces in familiar places

February 21, 2020

After the WCAL race finished in a tie, its tri-champions will hold the top three seeds in the CCS Open Division, looking to settle the score after nobody could gain an upper hand in the regular season.

Sound familiar?

It should. The three-way tie mirrors exactly how the league wrapped up in football, and all three of its teams took the top three seeds in the Division I playoffs, the football equivalent of the Open Division under the new format that the section had adopted this year.

It should also look familiar. Six of the eight teams from last year’s field are returning, and not only are they back in the field, they’ve come back to the exact same seeds they’ve held from the prior year. The only two changes are Atherton’s two WBAL teams, Menlo and Sacred Heart Prep, taking the place of two San Francisco teams, Sacred Heart Cathedral and St. Ignatius. Just like last year, Fremont High in Sunnyvale will host a matchup between second-seeded Riordan and seventh-seeded St. Francis and a clash between fourth-seeded Menlo-Atherton and fifth-seeded Serra.

Continuing with the parallels to the football playoffs of the prior fall and last year’s Open Division field, M-A has held the fourth seed in all of them. Last year, the Bears became the second public school team to win a quarterfinal game, topping the Padres 67-54. The Carson family had its fingerprints all over that game, and the clan will be in an even more prominent role on Friday night. Brian Carson, who had served as Chuck Rapp’s assistant at Serra for 13 years, is the head coach this season as Rapp continues to recover from knee surgery. His older brother, Craig, is Mike Molieri’s right-hand man with the Bears, and his nephew, JD, is one of M-A’s top scorers.

While familiarity can become repetitive, there’s nothing wrong with an Open Division field that bears strong resemblance to the prior seven. For a second straight year, all of the teams in the field have appeared before, with Sacred Heart Prep making the longest drought, having last competed in 2015, reaching the semifinals. Why change what’s worked, though? Every year, the Open Division has been a blast. Each of the first seven editions of the tournament has had a first-round game decided by five points or fewer, a semifinal within seven points and a championship game won by no more than eight. With such great games on a yearly basis, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. The one major change comes in the form of location. Piedmont Hills, which has hosted quarterfinal games on four occasions and has been a hotbed for wild games, won’t be one of the sites this year.

The gym that saw Aaron Gordon’s Mitty team nearly get knocked off by Soquel in the tournament’s first year, a 70-foot buzzer beater by Sacred Heart Cathedral’s David Parsons, top-seeded St. Francis overcome a seven-point deficit in the final 90 seconds in 2016 and and SHC become the first eighth seed to knock off a number one seed en route to last year’s unexpected title will let one of the other sites become the venue for the heroic moments that the Open Division has become known for. Once again, Independence will host the semifinals, but the championship will not be at Santa Clara.

The Leavey Center is booked with college games and practices throughout that weekend, so for the first time since 1982, the CCS will be hosting championship games at Stanford, with Maples Pavilion hosting the girls game at 6 p.m. and the boys game at 8 on Friday, Feb. 28. Maples hosted 13 of the first 15 CCS championship games, including the 1975 and 1976 bouts between Cupertino and St. Ignatius, where Kurt Rambis scored 23 and 27 points to lead the Pioneers to victory. Mark McNamara, who played in the NBA for six years, scored 25 in a losing effort for Del Mar in 1977. Even after losing to St. Ignatius in 1981, Gunn players carried head coach Hans Delannoy off the court on their shoulders in appreciation for his efforts, and in 1982, the last championship played at Maples, a Bud Bresnahan-coached Jefferson team topped Riordan.

For all the great players that’ll be on the court in this year’s Open Division, it’s fitting that they’ll be playing the title game in a building that’s seen more than a few greats take the floor. From top to bottom, this year’s class is arguably the best since 2013, Gordon’s senior year, and in that year, the Open Division wasn’t a collection of the top eight teams, as limits were in place on the number of teams that could be drawn from a single league or enrollment division. Such restrictions were gradually eased over the following years, leading to a true gathering of the best teams between San Francisco and King City to determine one true champion.

What could make this year better than the last few? Well, the top teams alone can all lay claim to being the best team in the section’s best league, which doubles as one of the top leagues in the entire state. All three of Bellarmine, Mitty and Riordan have players who have futures in Division I programs. Menlo-Atherton has been by far the top public school program in the region in recent years, and while Serra finished two games out of the tie for first in the WCAL, the Padres have arguably been the most consistent team in the league, having only lost games to the three teams tied for first. Such consistency is fitting for one of two programs (the other being Mitty) to appear in all eight editions of the Open Division. Sacred Heart Prep is one of the most dynamic and exciting teams around, with a sophomore point guard leading the way, while St. Francis, a team that’s made a living out of exceeding expectations and silencing doubters, often has three sophomores on the court. Menlo rounds out the field with one of the best post players in the entire Bay Area, a four-year varsity player and three-year starter.

No. 1 Mitty (20-4)

Past Open appearances: 7 (2013 - Champions, 2014 - Champions, 2015, 2016, 2017 - Champions, 2018 - Runner-up, 2019)

Open record: 15-5 (13-4 in bracket games, 2-1 in consolation games)

Three key starters: 6-3 Sr. G Owen Browne, 6-3 Jr. PG Mikey Mitchell, 6-3 Sr. W Mason Ryan

Must-watch reserve: 6-9 Jr. C Arrish Bhandal. Bhandal, Aidan Burke, Nigel Burris and James Thomas have all been vital off the bench, but only Bhandal has had a 31-point game, complete with a buzzer-beater to beat Riordan on Feb. 11.

The Monarchs can win if ... They keep the ball moving. Mitty has tons of individual players who can dominate games, but the best results have come when everyone gets involved. Mitty’s had 11 games with four double-digit scorers this year, all wins, including three where five players have scored at least 10. That included last Friday’s 20-point beatdown of Serra, a sign that when everyone chips in, the Monarchs are truly deadly.

No. 2 Riordan (20-4)

Past Open appearances: 4 (2013, 2014, 2015, 2019)

Open record: 5-6 (3-4 in bracket games, 2-2 in consolation games)

Three key starters: 6-3 Sr. G Je’Lani Clark, 5-11 Sr. G Bryce Monroe, 7-1 So. C Mor Seck

Must-watch reserve: 6-4 Sr. F Dominic Wilson. With Robert Vaihola expected to start on Friday, that means Wilson will be the most impactful player coming off the bench. Whichever of the two power forwards doesn’t start will typically be needed to stop teams in the post on the defensive end and provide the consistent plays while Seck delivers highlight-reel blocks.

The Crusaders can win if ... They get the ball to their bigs. Yes, Clark and Monroe are the most talented players on the floor on almost every single night, but when met with other elite guards, it’s harder to exploit a mismatch in the backcourt. Instead, Riordan needs to get the ball to the players who have the greatest differential in talent from their counterparts, rather than simply riding with the best players. Playing the matchups in the post has led to success for the Crusaders throughout the season, and if it keeps up, they’ll be hoisting a trophy in a week’s time.

No. 3 Bellarmine (21-3)

Past Open appearances: 4 (2016 - Runner-up, 2017 - Runner-up, 2018 - Champions, 2019 - Runner-up)

Open record: 9-3 (all bracket games)

Three key starters: 6-2 Sr. G Quinn Denker, 6-6 Sr. F Ian Elam, 6-9 Jr. C Ryan Kiachian

Must-watch reserve: 6-5 Sr. F Josiah Ajiake. Any of Ajiake, Cole Despie, Jackson Dupree or Kyle Lewis can be a double-digit scorer on any given night, but Ajiake’s also become a stellar offensive rebounder, providing a rare mix of speed and size in the post that allows him to impact the game on both ends of the floor.

The Bells can win if ... They keep riding with Elam and Kiachian. After scoring just seven points in a Jan. 31 loss to Mitty and going scoreless in the first half against Serra on Feb. 4, Kiachian scored 10 between the second half and overtime and hasn’t looked back since. Elam, who’s been a stellar defender all season, highlighted by his performances in both wins over the Padres, closed the regular season with 21 points in a win at St. Francis.

No. 4 Menlo-Atherton (21-3)

Past Open appearances: 3 (2016, 2017, 2019)

Open record: 2-5 (1-3 in bracket games, 1-2 in consolation games)

Three key starters:: 6-0 Sr. G Justin Anderson, 6-3 Jr. G Spencer Lin, 6-3 Jr. F Skyler Thomas

Must-watch reserve: 6-0 Sr. G JD Carson. Son of assistant coach Craig Carson and nephew of Serra head coach Brian Carson, the linebacker-turned-basketball player has been a regular double-digit scorer as a senior as a consistent shooter from both mid-range and beyond the arc, and his stellar defensive effort has kept the Bears from missing a beat if he replaces any of their starters on the floor.

The Bears can win if ... They bring it on defense. In two of their three losses, they allowed at least 80 points, but since giving up 85 in a Dec. 20 loss at Mitty, they’ve allowed north of 50 in just four of 19 games and enter the postseason having won 17 straight.

No. 5 Serra (17-7)

Past Open appearances: 7 (2013 - Runner-up, 2014 - Runner-up, 2015 - Champions, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019)

Open record: 11-8 (8-6 in bracket games, 3-2 in consolation games)

Three key starters: 5-11 Sr. PG Antonio Abeyta, 6-5 Sr. F Julius Alcantara, 5-8 Jr. G Dimitri Koutsogeorgas

Must-watch reserve: 6-0 Sr. G Damon Lewis. Also a football player and golfer, Lewis seems to be good for one or two big steals in every game, almost always leading to points at the other end. The five he scored in the fourth quarter against St. Francis on Feb. 11 were huge in an 18-point comeback victory.

The Padres can win if ... They get the bench involved. Serra’s biggest wins have all seemed to involve at least one reserve scoring seven or more points, whether it’s Lewis, Luke Bidinost, Jevon Jesus or Brady Smith. Those plays always seem to come in rapid succession, too. Getting back-to-back baskets from a bench player while one of the starters rest often ends up being the difference in Padre victories.

No. 6 Sacred Heart Prep (21-3)

Past Open appearances: 1 (2015)

Open record: 1-2 (1-1 in bracket games, 0-1 in consolation games)

Three key starters: 6-1 So. PG Aidan Braccia, 6-4 Sr. G Jai Deshpande, 6-7 Sr. C Charlie Selna

Must-watch reserve: 6-3 Jr. G Harrison Carrington. Along with Everett Banks, Carrington has been a massive offensive weapon off the bench, which was especially important in January as James Pleasants was slowed by illness. He had four 12-point games that month and has shot 45% from the field for the season.

The Gators can win if ... Their fast-paced play doesn’t turn into panic. When SHP gets going on offense, it’s not only effective but also tremendously fun to watch. However, it can turn into frantic sequences that lead to a parade of turnovers. Braccia’s assist-to-turnover ratio will be a telling sign of how things are going.

No. 7 St. Francis (14-10)

Past Open appearances: 5 (2015 - Runner-up, 2016 - Champion, 2017, 2018, 2019)

Open record: 7-6 (7-4 in bracket games, 0-2 in consolation games)

Three key starters: 6-1 So. G Harlan Banks, 6-2 So. G Isaiah Kerr, 6-1 Sr. G Trevor Leon

Must-watch reserve: 6-5 So. F Vince Barringer. A 3-point weapon off the bench, he’s had four double-digit games, including one against University that he finished off with a three at the buzzer.

The Lancers can win if ... They can shoot from outside. Despite a lack of size, they’ve been able to defend the post and rebound well thanks to Ryan Daly and Kyle Rosecrans, but there’s no question St. Francis will live by the three and die by the three. Whether it’s one of the sophomores, Leon or Rosecrans, someone will need to heat up, as Rosecrans did in a win over Sacred Heart Cathedral. If they go cold, as they did on Tuesday, it could be a long night and a quick exit.

No. 8 Menlo (20-4)

Past Open appearances: 1 (2018)

Open record: 0-2 (0-1 in bracket games, 0-1 in consolation games)

Three key starters: 6-7 Sr. F Cole Kastner, 5-10 Jr. G Davis Mead, 6-4 Sr. F Justin Sellers

Must-watch reserve: 6-4 Sr. F Max Huber. Garret Keyhani’s been a valuable player for Menlo both as a starter and off the bench, but his role has been undefined at times, whereas Huber is almost always a reserve. On a team where most individual rebounding numbers look thin, simply because Kastner is such a menace on the boards, Huber’s been extremely strong on the glass, including nine rebounds in a win over King’s Academy. He also scored 14 points in a Feb. 11 win over Eastside.

The Knights can win if ... Mead controls the flow of the game. It’s no secret that Menlo has the longest odds in the field, but Mead’s had a quietly good season, shooting 34% from beyond the arc. If he can control the pace to make opponents get out of their rhythm, likely by slowing them down, Menlo can frustrate teams, and if that allows the Knights to take an early lead, they can make a heavily favored team fluster and panic.


Quarterfinals, Friday, Feb. 21

No. 8 Menlo vs. No. 1 Mitty, 5:30 p.m. @ Santa Clara HS

The Knights and Monarchs met back on Dec. 6, a game in which Mitty broke things wide open with a 31-9 third quarter. Nigel Burris scored 15 off the bench in that win, his second-highest mark on the season.

No. 7 St. Francis vs. No. 2 Riordan, 5:30 p.m. @ Fremont HS

The Lancers have been a thorn in Riordan’s side this year, losing by just eight in San Francisco on Jan. 24 and taking a one-point lead into the fourth before falling 69-64 on Valentine’s Day. Mor Seck has played well in both of those games for the Crusaders, with 11 points and 11 rebounds in the home win and eight points and eight rebounds last Friday.

No. 6 Sacred Heart Prep vs. No. 3 Bellarmine, 7 p.m. @ Santa Clara HS

With 12 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, Charlie Selna has had a remarkable senior year, but he’ll have one of his toughest challenges so far this year when he has to deal with Ian Elam and Ryan Kiachian in the post. He’s fared well against other teams with top post players, though, scoring 15 against St. Patrick-St. Vincent’s Dishon Jackson and 15 and 17 in wins over Eastside, where he had to deal with the walking double-double known as Raymond Reece.

No. 5 Serra vs. No. 4 Menlo-Atherton, 7 p.m. @ Fremont HS

The most-anticipated game of the night, interim Serra head coach Brian Carson is less focused on the family rivalry on the coaching staff and much more on trying to avoid a repeat of last year’s loss to the Bears.

“My brother and I are over the hill,” he joked. “It’s about the kids and the opportunity they have to compete at the highest level of this Section. It should be a war.”

The two teams are quite familiar beyond the family connections. They scrimmaged back in November and have been on a crash course for a rematch for weeks, with both teams heavily scouting each other. Though the two come from different leagues, there should be no shortage of familiarity, meaning fans should be treated to a tactical chess match, with both teams prepared for even the smallest details, including inbound plays and end-of-clock scenarios.

Semifinals, Wednesday, Feb. 26 at Independence HS, 5:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Consolation games, Thursday, Feb. 27 at home sites, times TBD (played between first-round losers)

Championship, Friday, Feb. 28 at Maples Pavilion, 8 p.m.

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