BASKETBALL PREVIEW: Bonita Starts 5-2, Character-Revealing Games Await

December 16, 2009
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Last year, the Bonita High School varsity basketball team shot out of the gate to a 13-0 record before the competition knew what hit them, its string of wins a product of hard work and continuity.

“We hit the ground running,” said Coach Greg Eckler, now entering his 8th campaign as Bearcats coach. “I think we had a big jump on all the other teams because we worked so hard in the off season.”

This year’s team is sitting at 5-2 after seven games, finishing third out of 20 teams in the recent El Rancho tournament, a respectable start but the not the scintillating dash that set them apart last year.

“We’re not the same team at all,” Eckler said.


Front, from left, Casey Horine, Chris Finch, Jordan Butler, Tim Fassas, James Northup, Caelan Tiongson, Jimmy Bentz, and Bryan Castruita. Back, from left, Zach Brungard, Erik Woodruff, Shayan Karim, Garrett Pendleton, C.J. Miller and Garrett Horine.

This year, Eckler is still trying to blend some of his football players, such as Zach Brungard, Casey Horine, Garrett Horine and Garrett Pendleton, into the mix. Other players like standout power forward C.J. Miller, who was out for about five weeks with a broken hand before the start of the season, are also battling their way back. Casey Horine is another hard-knocking working his way back from assorted football injuries.

“It’s been a lot of bringing back football guys and bringing back some guys who were injured,” Eckler said, “but hopefully we’re going to be peaking in the next two or three weeks and firing again on all cylinders.”

In the seven years Eckler has headed the program, he has brought home four league titles. His teams, often outmatched in size, are rarely outhustled. His teams’ success has been built on defense.

“We keep going back to what we always do, and that’s playing defense and working hard,” Eckler said. “That’s how we survive.

“There is so much focus on offense and shooting and scoring, so it’s nice to see that some teams still focus on defense,” he added. “The details of defense, and all the hard work that goes into it, that’s what’s going to help us win games. That stuff doesn’t get into the paper.”

Eckler said his team is still looking for its defensive soul and identity. In his history classes, Eckler is currently covering the Great Depression. He hopes his team will display some of that same lunch pail grittiness that every squad needs to get through tough times and emerge a winner.

“Right now, to be honest, we’re still figuring that out,” Eckler said, like a teacher issuing mid-term grades. “Last year’s team at this point was a better defensive team. Nolan Abernathy was our undisputed leader. This year, we’re figuring out who’s going to be our defensive leader, and our tough guy.”

Still, Eckler can count on plenty of help. Seniors Erik Woodruff, Tim Fassas and Miller are returning starters from last year’s team. James Northup, who’s been averaging about 16 points per game through the first games, and a healthy Casey Horine should also improve the Bearcats’ fortunes.

In addition to averaging about 12 points a game, Miller has been pulling down about seven boards a game to lead the team.

The bench also has lots of depth. Relieving Woodruff at center are Garrett Horine and Pendleton. Jordan Butler usually gets the first call to relieve one of the guards. “He’s hit some big threes for us already,” said Assistant Coach Dave Zylstra of Butler’s bombs.

Also getting calls early in the season are Caelan Tiongson at guard or small forward, along with Jimmy Bentz, Shayan Karim and Chris Finch. Bryan Castruita was also in the mix, but is currently nursing a bad back. Zach Brungard is also out with injury.

The schedule, as tough as it is in the early going, should also help reveal the Bearcats’ character. This week, they play four games in the Alhambra tournament. After Christmas, they’ll participate in the always competitive Covina tournament. Before the regular season starts, they’ll also tip off against Damien at home and cross-town rival San Dimas.

“It’s a pretty tough non-league schedule,” Eckler said. “We’re in some good, strong tournaments that hopefully test our guys and get them ready for league.”

League rivals Diamond Ranch, last year’s Miramonte champion, and up-and-coming Charter Oak, figure to be the Beacats’ main competition.

Bonita’s best weapon, until the team finds its true identify, may be Eckler himself. He’s already hoarse and the season has just begun.

“I love to compete,” Eckler said, his voice sounding sore and strained. “That’s the joy for me, being part of the team and going out there and competing.”

Eckler also is proud of the team he’s out there competing with, completely homegrown talent. “It’s rare these days, but our kids grew up in the community and went to La Verne schools,” he said. “Most of them played Mighty Mites together.”

Just how mighty they have all grown is yet to be determined. Bonita’s first league game is January 13 at Charter Oak.

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