Don’t cry a tear for Argentina or Damien basketball coach Matt Dunn just yet. While Dunn loses four-year starting center Chris Reyes now playing for St. Mary’s and playmaker Clayton White, he brings back a stellar back court in sophomore Jeremy Hemsley and senior Jared Dizon and a supporting cast of experienced players that should prove deadly to league and non-league rivals alike.
Damien tipped its hand early last week, winning and running away with the Sierra Vista tournament, featuring a host of heavyweights, including Thousand Oaks, Troy and Glendora. The Spartans will now put its early undefeated 5-0 winning streak on the line this Friday against Alta Loma on Damien’s home court at 6:30 p.m.
Although Reyes’ towering, shot-blocking influence in the middle will be sorely absent, Damien literally will not be coming up short.
“We’re not small at all,” said Dunn, now in his 10th season as Damien’s head basketball coach. “We pretty much start five guys who are between 6-3 and 6-6.”
In addition to Hemsley at the point and Dizon as the shooting guard, Kevin Alfaro, a senior, and Isaiah McCullough, a sophomore, will run the floor as forwards and senior Keith Cavanaugh will anchor the middle at center.
Early on, Damien might struggle more on defense than offense.
Chris [Reyes] changed the game defensively,” Dunn said wistfully.
On offense, the Spartans should pack plenty of firepower, however.
“We have five guys returning who all played in every game last year. Indeed, Hemsley, was the team’s third leading scorer as a freshman last season while Dizon was the team’s second-leading scorer. Dizon was also an all CIF selection.
“Jeremy and Jared will do the majority of scoring,” Dunn admitted, “and will be making plays for the other guys. I think you’ll see different players step on different nights because of our balance.”
Perhaps, balance and keeping the game in perspective are what distinguish the Damien program on and off the court.
“We have never set our expectations on winning,” Dunn said. “Rather, we have always set our expectations on meeting our potential.”
And right now that potential is “very high.”
Dunn and Damien have been getting it done with homegrown players who are tough, talented and respectful.
“In my 10 years, I’ve never taken a transfer who ever played a varsity game for any other team,” Dunn said. “I’m really proud of that.
“We try really hard to make our players better once they get here. I think we’ve gotten better at that over the years. There are a lot of short cuts in high school sports these days, but we’ve tried to avoid that, and that’s kind of nice.”
Because of the Spartans’ recent winning ways (three trips to the semifinals in the last four years and a 56-7 win/loss record over the last two seasons), the talent level continues to rise at Damien. Dunn is attracting more players capable of not only running plays, but also making plays.
“We’re getting higher-caliber players checking into the school,” Dunn said. “Obviously Jeremy and Isaiah were very good players when they got here. Chris [Reyes] was a really good player when he got here.”
Dunn also has upped his game. When you watch his practice, everybody in the gym knows who’s in command.
“I hope I’m better than I was last year,” Dunn said. “We ask that of our players. So, I would have that same expectation of myself.”
Dunn, despite running Damien’s marketing program, is still a gym rat who loves observing college practices and deepening his relationships with college coaches, especially at schools where some of his players now attend.
Because Dunn believes player development excels most by facing tough challenges, he’s scheduled a season of worthy, highly rated opponents. Next week, the team travels to an all-Catholic school tournament in Sacramento. Also lying in wait are Corona Centennial, Eisenhower, and the always tough league schedule.
“Our players like the opportunity to play the best,” Dunn added.
Dunn maybe a former math teacher, but he still knows how to do the simple arithmetic that adds up to post-season success.
“This journey,” Dunn said, “is going to be an exhausting one in terms of taking such a young team and meeting our potential, but I’m really excited to see what we look like at the end … to try to make a run at a league title and a CIF title.”
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