Alexander: At Corona Centennial, ‘three-peat’ isn’t a bad word

CORONA – Corona Centennial boys basketball coach Josh Giles is not superstitious, at least when it comes to mentioning the prize that is within his team’s reach.

When the Huskies face St. John Bosco in the CIF Open Division championship game Saturday night at Honda Center, they have a chance to win three consecutive CIF Southern Section boys basketball titles. That would be only the second time it’s been done since 2006 and the first time ever in the Open Division, which has been around since 2014.

Pressure? Bring it on. Three-peat? As long as nobody has to pay royalties to Pat Riley to say it, it’s not a forbidden word.

“We do talk about it, because I don’t ever want to lie to them, and we want to know exactly what we’re getting into,” said Giles, who has been Centennial’s head coach since 2004 and has a shot at his fourth CIF title at the school. “And nobody in the Open Division era has ever three-peated, so we’re trying to do something historical, and to do something historical it’s going to take a historical effort.

“We’ve talked about it and my thought process – and I don’t know if this makes me smart or stupid – but I’ve said, ‘Guys, you chose to come to Centennial. We’re going to play in the best events. We don’t duck anybody. We’re going to go play the best competition that we can possibly play. If you were afraid of pressure, you wouldn’t have come here.’ So saying, ‘Oh, doing something historical or oh, three-peat,’ if that puts pressure on you, you shouldn’t come here.”

You can assume, then, that the athletes will embrace the moment as an opportunity rather than a burden. It starts with three seniors who have been mainstays of the two previous championships: guard and Duke commit Jared McCain, forward and Loyola Marymount commit Aaron McBride, and 6-10 center and UCLA commit Devin Williams.

They were part of maybe the strangest season in Southern Section history in 2021, which didn’t begin until March 26 because of COVID-19 restrictions but ended June 11 with an 82-70 title game victory on Sierra Canyon’s home court. The Huskies were 21-2 that year, and with the section playoffs ending in June and no state finals (since the teams in the North weren’t playing), Giles opted out of the Southern California Regionals so his players could participate in the Section 7 recruiting showcase tournament in Arizona.

“Those kids had gone 17 months without playing in front of a college coach,” Giles recalled. “To me, playing the same tournament again (in the regionals) didn’t make a lot of sense. Having the kids go and get seen by college coaches made way more sense.

“I think our team as a whole ended up getting like 58 scholarship offers when we went to Section 7, between all the kids.”

That “was definitely a weird year,” McCain said. “Each year it’s been different, but I think everything stays the same as in, we always play hard, always stick to our Centennial culture.”

Last season, in a more traditional calendar, Centennial was 33-1, won the section title 68-48 over Harvard-Westlake at home, then beat Bishop Montgomery and Sierra Canyon in the SoCal regional and Modesto Christian 59-50 in the state championship game in Sacramento.

This time things are much closer to normal. The championship games return to Honda Center for the first time since 2017, and a Centennial team that is currently 28-3, has won 18 in aa row and hasn’t lost to a California team all season goes against a St. John Bosco team that is 26-5 and went 2-1 in Open Division pool play, advancing to the final on the strength of a win over Harvard-Westlake.

That comment from Giles about choosing to play there and thus embracing the expectations? That’s how his best players approach it, and that seems to filter down.

“When I was younger, I always watched Centennial,” Williams said. “They had a bunch of really good players coming in here, winning a lot of games, winning a lot of big-time games. My freshman year (when Williams played for Corona), Jared’s freshmen beat a really good Mater Dei team, so they were always a really good team.

“But for us, to win and then the following year win again and then state (in 2022) … I wouldn’t say we polished the program. I feel like we kicked up the intensity a little bit, and the expectations for sure.”

Centennial’s nonleague schedule this season included teams from Louisiana, Texas, Nevada, Florida, Georgia, New York, North Carolina and New Jersey. The only losses – all heavyweight-vs.-heavyweight matchups – were at Duncanville, Tex., 59-57 on Nov. 26; to Wheeler of Marietta, Ga., 57-53 on Dec. 19 at Ft. Myers, Fla.; and to Don Bosco Prep of Ramsey, N.J., 65-63 on Dec. 29 at Raleigh, N.C.

In fact, Centennial lost at Duncanville in November 2021 as well, its only loss last season. So maybe it’s an omen.

McCain noted that the school’s trainer estimated their air miles traveled during the early part of the season at “29,000, 27.000 miles, just to play in these big arenas against these big names and big teams.

“So we’re built for this. We’ve been prepared this whole year for these moments and it’s just another game – just a little more pressure on it. But, you know, it’s why we came to Centennial.”

History can be a tough foe. The CIF Southern Section record book lists 16 teams across all boys basketball divisions that have won three or more championships in a row, going back to the beginning and seven consecutive titles for Whittier, from 1911 through 1917. Mater Dei is responsible for four of those streaks, including six in a row from 1992-97, and Harvard-Westlake and Rolling Hills Prep (most recently from 2017-19) have done so twice each.

But no one in the top division has done so since Mater Dei’s 1992-97 hegemony in 1A, and no one has come close since the Open Division was instituted in 2014. In the 2000s, 17 Southern Section teams have won two in a row but couldn’t get the third, and only two of those 17 – Verbum Dei in 2005 and Mater Dei in 2007 – made it to a third final. So in a sense, Corona Centennial has already beaten the odds.

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And the Huskies aren’t running from it, especially the eight seniors on the roster, Maybe there’s a message there: When you have a chance to make history, don’t waste it.

“Really, senior year is like a reality check sometimes,” McBride said. “You’re thinking about the games you’re in and you realize there’s not really that many left, maybe 10-15 more and that’s it.

“You’ve got to play as hard as you can, because you’ll miss it when it’s gone.”

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