East County Sports

East County was home of champions in ’13

El Cajon Valley star Andre Nikita / Price Photography for ECS




By Nick Pellegrino


EL CAJON —- The 2012-13 boys basketball season was filled with award-winning programs, with seven schools that call East County home going on to capture league titles — no other year comes close to such on-court success.


From the first-ever championship for El Cajon Valley to an extremely rare three-way deadlock in the other Grossmont Conference league, plus success by non-Grossmont Unified High School District schools, the season will be one to truly remember.




When Grossmont High School was split in half, allowing El Cajon Valley to open its doors for the 1956-57 school year, basketball success never came in bushels, only in rare rain droplets.


One could count the number of seasons the Braves posted an above-.500 record in league play on one hand. And it took more than a half-century for the school to garner its initial boys’ hoops banner.


The difference was guard Andre Nikita.


The senior posted a 50-point effort against Ramona, then did better two weeks later in a 51-point outburst against Oceanside. Nikita also topped 40 on several occasions, leading head coach Marty Ellis’ troops to a school-record 19-9 mark; 7-1 to top the Grossmont Valley League and finish two games above Monte Vista and Mount Miguel.


PHOTO: http://eastcountysports.com/main/2012-13/prep/bbbphotos/ECVbbb0nikitaLeagueChampsSM.jpg 


Nikita clinched the title with a 41-point effort at home against Mount Miguel, a team that could have gained a co-title on the final night of the regular season that Feb. 15.


Nikita, a senior, was more than just offense on the evening, working hard on both ends of the court to also garner 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 blocked shots, and a pair of steals. 


In addition, Sangar Hasan added 8 points, while Loqman Sulyman the region’s runaway leader in 3-point shooting, posted a pair of triples.


Nikita went on to play collegiately at Angelo State University in Texas. LINK: https://sports.yahoo.com/ncaab/players/138638/


Two years later, El Cajon Valley would repeat as GVL champions, then took the CIF Division III title game, as the Braves downed Valhalla, 61-49, for the San Diego Section championship.




Two teams often share a league title when they split the regular-season series, but a 3-way deadlock is extremely rare. It has happened in many small-school leagues, but among the big boys, one needs to go back to the 1949-50 season — the year before the City Prep League was created — to find “tri-champs.”


At a time when only one round of play was the norm for a team’s schedule, Coronado, La Jolla, and Point Loma each ended at 5-2, nosing out Chula Vista and Kearny (each 4-3) on the final day of the season.


More than 60 years later, the Grossmont Hills League also landed in a 3-way tie, with Steele Canyon, Helix, and Grossmont each going 6-4. The remaining trio — Granite Hills, Valhalla, and West Hills — also landing in a dead heat at 4-6 each. Entering the final night on Feb. 15, Grossmont and Steele Canyon were tied for first, so both needed to win to maintain the piece of the prize.


However, the Foothillers were upset by last-place Valhalla, 55-52, behind 18 points by Spencer Havird of the Norsemen. That left room for Helix to join the collective at the top of the table with a triumph over the Cougars,


For the Highlanders, it was mission accomplished in a tight, defensive effort, 46-38. Plus, the Scotties gained the top seed out of the GHL for the playoffs by virtue of a 3-1 mark against the other two teams.


Categorized as a “defensive dynamo” in the original game story, Helix’s Kaelen Mitchell enjoyed his best offensive output, hitting 8 of 14 shots from the field for 22 points. He also had 7 rebounds, a steal, and 2 blocks.


For Steele Canyon, its share of the title seemed impossible following the first round of league play, registering an unimpressive 2-3 mark before rolling to four straight victories entering the finale.


Grossmont’s Foothillers were defeated on a pair of Spencer Havird foul shots in the final six seconds. Meanwhile, the Hillers were just 6-of-19 at the line, probably leaving them to silently grumble, “Helix got us again!”


Thus, four Grossmont Conference schools came away with trophies. But there was more hardware to be gained by other East County programs.




Although Christian High has been participating in varsity competition since the 1970s, the growth of charter schools and non-secular programs began to noticeably increase in the 21st Century.


Among those on the rise are Foothills Christian, which eventually forced the CIF-San Diego Section to redistribute its member schools so the very best — no matter the enrollment — could play other top-flight schools in an “Open Division” playoff format.


Others remained in small-school divisions, yet found success. One of these was Liberty Charter, which in its fourth season of varsity play set a notable record in achieving its first-ever league championship.




The Lions were to debut an all-freshman class at a new complex in Santee next to the women’s jail, but the recession and economic problems put those plans on hold. So the school took over the vacated Palm Avenue Middle School and made Lemon Grove it’s home. Games and practices were held at the Lemon Grove Recreation Center.


In three previous seasons, the Lions never finished above .500, but with some talented seniors now on the programs throughout their entire high school careers, things changed rapidly.


As participants in the Frontier North League,  the schools faced only one other competitive program. But when the Lions defeated High Tech High/North County 


in the first round, 61-49, on the road in San Marcos, the 300-count student body knew this could become a special season.


The home game before the rematch, Liberty established an East County record for the largest margin of victory, whipping I’Farrell Charter, a first-year program located just west of Morse High School.


The score wasn’t close: 104-3, a margin of 101 points! This broke the 1969-70 mark of 96, when Helix (33-0 this season) dominated Mount Miguel, 127-31, back; it remains the Grossmont Conference mark. The outcome was particularly shocking since the Matadors had just captured the CIFSDS large-school division championships with a perfect 32-0 ledger just two seasons previously.


Liberty then completed the season-series sweep of High Tech’s Raptors,73-57, in front of a full house for its first banner on Feb. 7.  The Lions held a narrow 27-26 halftime advantage but turned it into a double-digit cushion through three periods.


Because of the scoring run to open the second half, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department was called because nearby neighbors complained about the “unheard of noise” coming from the Rec Center. Deputies laughed when they discovered the reason for the ruckus — the student body was celebrating a championship.




One of the oldest school’s in San Diego County —  geographically speaking, the largest school district in California (more than 600 square miles) — athletics success at Mountain Empire has historically been spotty. But in 2012-13, the RedHawks paved their way to a share of the Manzanita League crown.


On Jan. 16, Mountain Empire secured an early 20-11 advantage, but the Scots fought back to grab the lead at 49-47 through three quarters. However, the final eight minutes belonged to the hosts to claim a 66-63 victory.


Although Vincent Memorial won the rematch in Calexico some four weeks later, 73-60, neither school was challenged by the remaining Manzanita teams — the closest was third-place Julian, followed by Borrego Springs — to both finish with 9-1 league slates.


Vincent was led by junior Carlos Ayala, one of the leading underclassmen scorers in the CIF-San Diego Section, who led all Manzanita scorers at 21.6 per contest.


Buoyed by a perfect 8-0 mark on its home court, Mountain Empire secured its first league banner since 2005-06, when it shared the Citrus South League title with, of all schools, Foothills Christian in the first of a CIFSDS record 13 consecutive league titles for the Knights — the mark is current.




It took head coach Brad Leaf just three seasons to take the first-year program at Steele Canyon and turn the Cougars into CIF champions. And the former 17-year professional overseas was on track to do the same for the Purple and Platinum.


A year after the school changed its name from Venture Christian, the Knights would go on to match Mountain Empire for the Citrus South League crown, FCHS would advance to the CIF Division 5 title game, but fell to Horizon at San Diego State’s Viejas Arena. Foothills then made its first foray into the CIF State Playoffs, winning a Southern California opening-round game on the road at Arcadia-Rio Hondo Prep, 65-61, before falling in the quarterfinals to powerful Sherman Oaks-Buckley, 50-47.


PHOTO: http://www.eastcountysports.com/main/2012-13/prep/bbbphotos/FCbbbCIFsocal22-lon.jpeg


It was the kickoff campaign to the career of center T.J. Leaf, a freshman who later became the CIFSDS Player of the Year twice — his older brother, Troy, did in 2009-10.


T.J. Leaf earned a scholarship to UCLA, but left the Bruins following one season to play in the NBA for the Indiana Pacers; he was drafted in the first round at No. 18 overall.


LINK: https://www.basketball-reference.com/players/l/leaftj01.html


Leaf would finish third among East County scorers at 22.4 per outing (high of 41), first in field goal shooting and second rebounding. His totals would definitely be higher, but he and the starters were often pulled early in league blowouts.


The remaining key performers featured (alphabetically): Caleb Hoffman, Nick Louden, Austin Monstrong, J.R. Rivera, Jerome Sherman, Loro Tombe, and Luis Salgado-Villegas.


Elsewhere, the Christian Patriots, titlists of the Central League the prior year, finished fifth among seven schools after graduating four starting seniors.

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