CIFSS Boys Open: What We Learned

Ethan Thompson of state No. 1 Bishop Montgomery (left) had a monster fourth quarter to lead his team to the CIFSS Open Division championship, a playoff bracket that became more intriguing after Mater Dei’s Bol Bol became eligible. Photo: Nick Koza/Andrew Drennen

State No. 1 Bishop Montgomery of Torrance won the CIF Southern Section Open Division title with a 70-55 win over No. 2 Mater Dei of Santa Ana. With the win, the Knights secured the top seed in the SoCal Open Division regional playoffs. The top four seeds will be the four teams that advanced to the CIFSS Open Divisions semifinals, as they have been the state’s top four ranked teams all season long. The top seed for the open regional was decided on the court, so why not the No. 3 seed? We quick recap the title game and offer some insight and analysis on the state’s most followed section playoff tournament.

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The boys basketball team at Bishop Montgomery came into the CIF Southern Section Open Division title game loose and confident. It showed in its demeanor and approach. Even when the Knights fell behind in the third quarter, coach Doug Mitchell didn’t sense panic in his players. So when the shots started falling in the final period, it spelled doom for Mater Dei of Santa Ana.

State No. 1 Bishop Montgomery proceeded to outscore No. 2 Mater Dei, 32-11, in the final quarter to defeat the Monarchs, 70-55, before approximately 7,500 fans at the Honda Center in Anaheim. Not only did Bishop Montgomery (27-2) win its second CIFSS Open Division title in three years, the win secured the top seed in the eight-team SoCal Open Regional for the Knights when pairings are announced by the CIF on Sunday. Mater Dei will be the No. 2 seed in that same bracket.

“We played with a lot of heart, we kept playing, even when we had shots that weren’t falling,” said Mitchell, who won his sixth section title since 1999. “I never sensed doubt in the guys, which is what you hope from an experienced team.”

Oregon State-bound Ethan Thompson of Bishop Montgomery was called for his fourth foul with 5:47 to go and Mater Dei (31-2) leading 49-45, but the Knights adjusted their defensive assignments and played even more focused thereafter. They shot 9-of-11 from the field in the final period and won going away even though the game was closer than the final score indicated.

“No, it didn’t even cross my mind,” Mitchell said of removing Thompson from the game after he drew his fourth foul.

“Usually teams have trouble shooting in big arenas, but they didn’t have that problem,” said Mater Dei coach Gary McKnight, who was aiming for his state-leading 23rd section title. “Ethan Thompson is a fine basketball player. So was his dad (Stephen), as they (L.A. Crenshaw) beat us in the 1986 SoCal regional finals.”

As a program, Mater Dei is still tied for No. 2 on the all-time state list with Washington of Easton at 22, which Edison of Fresno alone with an all-time best 23 CIF Central Section titles. Neither one of those two schools won a section title this year either.

Pivotal Moment

After Mater Dei went on a 14-2 run to close the second quarter and open the third, Bishop Montgomery had a 17-2 run in the final period to turn a six-point deficit (44-38) into a 62-51 lead with three minutes remaining in the game. Perhaps the biggest play in that run was when 7-foot Bol Bol of Mater Dei was called for a foul on Thompson’s 3-point attempt with 4:40 remaining. He made all three fouls shots to tie the game at 51-51 and the Monarchs never recovered.

Key Stats

Thompson led all scorers with 23 points and added game-highs of eight rebounds and five assists. Bishop Montgomery junior guard David Singleton added 21 points and six rebounds, while senior forward Jordan Schakel added 16 points. For Mater Dei, Bol finished with a team high 15 points. Cal-bound Justice Sueing added 11 points, while junior guard Spencer Freedman added 10 points.

Bishop Montgomery made 9-of-24 on 3-pointers, while Mater Dei made 2-of-11. Mater Dei was credited with 10 assists, but McKnight mentioned the team usually averages around 18 assists as a team per outing.


CIFSS Open Division Breakdown

It Creates Great Atmospheres

There is no doubt the CIFSS got it right by having its open semifinals at the Galen Center in Los Angeles. Fans wanted to see the state’s top four teams without having to pick between one semifinal game or the other. The atmosphere when Bishop Montgomery upset then state No. 1 Sierra Canyon and Mater Dei outlasted then state No. 2 Chino Hills in overtime before 10, 258 fans was electric and had the feel of a CIF state final event.

The two main ingredients those games had were a buildup (fans and pollsters fully expected those four teams to participate) and star players (among them Bishop Montgomery’s Thompson, Sierra Canyon’s Marvin Bagley III, the Ball Bros. from Chino Hills and Bol Bol from Mater Dei). Having the four best teams in the state meeting in the section semifinals won’t happen every season, but when there is an expected showdown, the section has to appease the fans and make special arrangements. In most years, many of the state’s better teams will be meeting up in the open quarterfinals and semifinals.

The CIFSS put six section title games at the Honda Center as it usually does, but alternated between boys and girls games. While we understand equal opportunities along gender lines, putting the girls open game after the big Bishop Montgomery -Mater Dei game was a mistake. We saw this before in the CIF state final at ARCO Arena when Jason Kidd and his team at St. Joseph of Alameda took on Mater Dei in 1992. There were more than 12,000 fans on hand to see Kidd’s last high school game, but it wasn’t good to see fans in droves leave the arena when the girls from Peninsula of Rolling Hills Estates and Monta Vista of Cupertino were warming up. The same thing happened on Saturday night after approximately 7,500 fans of an announced 8,812 in the evening session watched the boys open final and at least 5,000 plus left.

Having the girls open game at the Honda Center or another big arena where the boys play would be fine, but the girls games should be played consecutively (as should the boys) and it doesn’t matter in which order. Or just the girls open game should be at the big venue. It’s not a matter of gender, it’s a matter of logistics, safety (you can’t place the boys at a venue that seats 3,500 when your expecting 10,000 fans as the section did for the semifinals) and economics.   

The Consolation Bracket Needs Adjusting

While plenty of fans wanted or expected a Chino Hills-Sierra Canyon final, a third place game between those two would have drawn tons of interest. Considering the logic behind the CIFSS open division consolation bracket (determining regional seeds), it would have made a ton of sense to play that game for the same reason.

At that brings us to the actual consolation bracket itself. It needs tweaking because after four years it’s clear coaches frown at the current format and fans don’t follow the games closely even though they involve some of the state’s best teams. One of the reasons is there is no official ceremony and previous attendees of the consolation title game mention it’s not treated as such.

What is the second toughest divisional championship in the CIF Southern Section and perhaps the state to win? It’s the CIFSS open divisional consolation championship.

“I’m all for it, if we we’re playing for something,” said Corona Centennial coach Josh Giles. “I think the winner of the consolation bracket should get a banner, plaque, rings the whole deal. Call it the open B divisions champions. Winning four games in this division against these teams should be rewarded. Just playing for seeding seems ridiculous when we have to play each other again in a week for state. It’s the second most impressive championship in all of CIF. If should be considered a CIF (section) championship to me.”

Other options would be to create pool play (four pools of four teams) before teams are seeded into bracket play based on pool standings, thus eliminating the consolation bracket. Another good option for eliminating the consolation bracket would be for the eight first-round open losers to fall back into the CIFSS D1AA bracket by creating byes for the top eight seeds.

It Has Created More Pressure To Win

Back to the point of having star players, the mega matchups were heightened because Bagley arrived at Sierra Canyon from Arizona last year and Bol arrived from Shawnee Mission, Kansas and became eligible mid-season. So while transfers can be a sensitive issue, there is little doubt they are key in the outcomes of these games. Without Bagley and Bol, some of the luster for those semifinals games are lost and the semifinal game not involving Chino Hills wouldn’t have been as attractive.

The open division has heightened the difference between the “have” and the “have nots” and the mini “arms race” it has created puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the coaching staffs of the teams who strive to play in the open division. Already we’ve seen three coaching changes among teams with open division aspirations, two that actually made it, and we’re not talking about announcements for next season. The announcements were made after the start of post-season and before the regional playoffs.

Village Christian of Sun Valley, which didn’t make the open division but has seen talented players come into and leave the program, announced the resignation of coach Jon Shaw. Crossroads of Santa Monica, which went 0-2 in the open division, will compete in the D2 SoCal regional without head coach Chad Beeten. The school announced a parting of ways after the section playoffs. Sierra Canyon was the top seed in the division and entered as the No. 1 team in the state, but struggled a bit in its opener versus Heritage Christian of Northridge and against eventual consolation champion Damien of La Verne before losing to eventual open champ Bishop Montgomery.

Head coach Ty Nichols hasn’t been fired and hasn’t resigned, but assistant coach Andre Chavalier (a former player at Cleveland of Reseda and Cal-St. Northridge) will lead the team in the playoffs. It’s just an odd and unfortunate coaching situation created by the pressure of adding Bagley to a lineup that was already one of the nation’s best for this season. Sierra Canyon can hypothetically bounce back to win the CIF State Open Division championship, but regardless of what happens it’s awfully tough to view a season in which a team beats current FAB 50 No. 2 La Lumiere of Indiana, No. 3 Memphis East, No. 13 Findlay Prep of Nevada and No. 14 Oak Hill Academy of Virginia (the same team that beat Chino Hills) as a failure. Bishop Montgomery entered Saturday’s title game ranked No. 7 in the FAB 50, while Mater Dei was No. 10, Sierra Canyon No. 12 and Chino Hills No. 15.

Creating a cohesive team with transfers and dealing with the ever-increasing parental influence at elite programs only adds to the pressure of a job that most consider thankless compared to a generation or two ago. High school coaches at a job where winning is the main priority usually put in way more than they take out. A couple of coaches around the section with a talented roster this season told us they had more fun in other seasons coaching lesser teams. In light of the general coaching shortage around the nation at the high school level, it makes you wonder if more coaches will look for greener pastures and how long quality, young coaches will want to stay in these types of situations.

Fans Not In Tuned To Other Divisions

A few press row scribes mentioned right away watching the Capistrano Valley-Oxnard CIFSS 2A title game was how easily Heritage Christian would have likely won that section crown if it wasn’t moved to the open division. Coach Paul Tait’s club drew the No. 16 seed in the open division and took Sierra Canyon to the brink before losing. They were one of four teams to go 0-2 in the open division that will be be tough outs in the SoCal D2 regional bracket.

Capo Valley was leading Oxnard, 6-1, after one quarter and 11-9 at halftime. It was a great experience for both teams, but for general fans of high school basketball, the talent level was not on par to what they are accustomed to seeing in a Honda Center championship game. Winning coach Brian Mulligan of Capistrano Valley won his first section title in 22 seasons, but mentioned in the press conference how he’s probably had seven or eight more talented teams than this one over the years.

The die-hards will always support their home team, but what is the general supporter of SoCal high school basketball supposed to make of that? Over the long-term, they will likely lose interest in the lower division section title games and that is unfortunate.

Ronnie Flores is the managing editor of He can be reached at Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @RonMFlores


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