The Cal-Hi Sports State Players of the Year honors have been selected for more than 40 years and the winners go onto all-time state lists that go back for more than 120 years. Here are the finalists for this year’s boys & girls top honors (four boys & six girls).
Note: We hope you enjoy this free post on CalHiSports.com. This week’s expanded TOP 40 overall final state rankings plus final rankings in all divisions and some of our exclusive all-state teams (including juniors, sophomores and frosh) will be for Gold Club members only. Sign up today for our Gold Club for $3.99 per month or as low as $2.08 per month for a yearly subscription. For details, CLICK HERE.
MR. BASKETBALL STATE PLAYER
OF THE YEAR FINALISTS
(Ronnie Flores contributed to these selections)
Amari Bailey (Sierra Canyon, Chatsworth) Sr.
Despite missing games with injuries, Bailey remains the most highly regarded player as a college/pro prospect in the senior class.
The 6-foot-5 senior combo guard, who burst onto the scene as a freshman in the CIF Open Division state championship game, is the only McDonald’s All-American among the four finalists (teammate Kijani Wright is the only other California player in the game). Amari also has the advantage of being the returning Mr. Basketball State POY for the 2021 season.
Headed to UCLA, Bailey had his best outings later in the season for the state No. 2 Trailblazers (26-4). This included 20 points in a win against Whitney Young of Chicago (nationally ranked), 22 in a SoCal Open Division contest vs St. Augustine of San Diego, 27 in a loss to Harvard-Westlake in the CIFSS playoffs and 21 in a CIFSS Open Division win vs Notre Dame of Sherman Oaks.
Donovan Dent (Centennial, Corona) Sr.
Perhaps the best argument surrounding Dent’s candidacy is what happened in the CIF Open Division state final. The 6-foot-2 senior point guard scored the two go-ahead baskets for the Huskies in their 59-50 win over Modesto Christian after the Crusaders had tied the score 48-48 late in the fourth quarter. He also had a game-high 21 points, game-high five assists, game-high three steals and tied for the game-high with eight rebounds.
In the CIF Southern Section honors that were announced on Monday (and obviously voted on before the state final was played), Dent was that section’s Open Division Co-Player of the Year along with junior teammate Jared McCain. Last year, in the first of two straight State Team of the Year seasons for the 33-1 Huskies, Dent was Co-Player of the Year with Sierra Canyon’s Amari Bailey.
In addition to the state final, some of the other top outings for Dent (who has signed with New Mexico) included 28 points in the CIFSS Open Division playoffs vs. Bishop Montgomery and 31 points with nine assists in an overtime triumph vs. Coronado of Las Vegas at the Nike Extravaganza.
Joseph “JoJo” Hunter
(San Joaquin Memorial, Fresno) Sr.
It’s easy to forget that Hunter soared for 49 points in a CIF Central Section Open Division win for the Panthers against a Clovis North of Fresno squad that would later play for the CIF D1 state championship.
Although the Panthers (23-8) later lost to Oakland Tech in the CIF NorCal D1 playoffs, Hunter had a player of the year type season. The 6-foot-5 senior guard headed to Fresno State averaged 31.6 ppg this season. This included a school record 54 points in a contest vs Madera South.
Not getting at least one more game also meant Hunter fell short of breaking the SJM career record of 2,350 points set in 2019 by current NBA rookie Jalen Green. Hunter had 31 points against Tech and ended with 2,337 career points (just 13 away from Green’s total).
Aidan Mahaney (Campolindo, Moraga) Sr.
This 6-foot-3 senior guard, similar to Amari Bailey, also has been standing out since the 2019 CIF state championships as a freshman. In Mahaney’s case, that was helping the Cougars win the D2 title and he was named State Freshman of the Year.
After shining with 24 points in the NorCal Open Division semifinals vs Archbishop Riordan of San Francisco, Mahaney racked up 27 in the regional final vs Modesto Christian. Who knows how this Mr. Basketball race could have been impacted if a possible game-winning shot by Aidan would have gone in against the Crusaders instead of rimming out? He’d have had the chance to play Centennial.
Mahaney, who is headed to nearby St. Mary’s for college, averaged 19.4 ppg as a sophomore for a Campo team that won the CIF NorCal D1 title and was supposed to play Ribet Academy for the state title when the pandemic hit. He missed games last season when the Cougars were the top-ranked team in Northern California (but with no playoffs). This year, he led a team that went 28-2 and won 49 of 50 games (entering the game with Modesto Christian) with 17.2 points and 3.9 assists per game.
MS. BASKETBALL STATE PLAYER
OF THE YEAR FINALISTS
(Harold Abend did the writeups for these players)
Breya Cunningham (La Jolla Country Day) Jr.
The State Freshman of the Year two years ago that got the nod over Juju Watkins in a very tough decision, and then was nudged out for the State Sophomore of the Year award by Watkins in an equally tough choice due to both playing a very limited number of games in the COVID-shortened season, edges out fellow CIF San Diego Section star Isuneh “Ice” Brady as a finalist for this year’s Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year honors.
In some games that were blowouts, Breya’s minutes were limited, including six where she played just a quarter, including a rout of Oceanside El Camino in the CIF San Diego Section Open Division playoffs, otherwise her 18.4 points and 11.4 rebounds per game would be higher.
Cunningham came up big against top teams on several occasions. She had 28 points and 16 rebounds in an 82-70 win over Centennial of Corona, a season-high 37 points and 15 rebounds in an 81-65 victory over St. Mary’s of Stockton, 24 points and 15 rebounds in a 73-71 victory against CIF Open state champion Sierra Canyon, and in a season-ending 63-62 heartbreaking loss to Sierra Canyon in the Southern Regional Open Division semifinals, Cunningham had double-double (No. 20 in 28 games played) after finishing with 23 points and 13 rebounds.
Londynn Jones (Centennial, Corona) Sr.
The UCLA-bound Jones was somewhat overshadowed in 2021 by her teammate and 2021 Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year Jada Curry, but this year she needed to do more and while she didn’t lead the team as far as they went in the COVID-shortened spring season, she was still among the state leaders in scoring.
Early in the season, Londynn went for 45 points (eight 3-pointers) in a win over Cathedral Catholic (San Diego) and hit the 40-mark a second time with 43 points in CIF Southern Section Open Division pool play in a win over Bishop Montgomery of Torrance. Jones came up big in some losses including 35 points (six 3-pointers) in a loss to La Jolla Country Day. Had her minutes not been limited in some Big VII League blowouts she might have been higher but her 25.2 points per game was 10th in the state in scoring and fourth behind her soon to be UCLA teammates Gabriella Jaquez of Camarillo, who just missed being a finalist.
Jones’ 108 three-pointers was 17th in the nation and the No. 6 reported mark in the state. Her career totals have not been officially verified, but in four varsity seasons that started at crosstown Santiago for her freshman and sophomore seasons she finished with 2,713 career points according to family sources. If that total is correct it would be good for No. 27 all time in the state and No. 7 all time in the Inland Empire according to the Cal-Hi Sports Online Record Book.
Elle Ladine (Pinewood, Los Altos Hills) Sr.
With no disrespect to her Panthers’ teammates, Pinewood head coach Doc Scheppler pretty much summed it up after his team was eliminated in a 51-48 loss to Oak Ridge (El Dorado Hills) in the CIF Northern Regional playoffs when he called his team Elle and the Belles.
In that game, the Washington-bound Ladine was matched up with future Huskies’ teammate Teagan Brown, who just missed being a Ms. Basketball finalist. Ladine played her heart out but tired down the stretch as a result. She ended her high school career with a double-double 31 points and 15 rebounds. It was her 23rd double-double in 25 games and she ends the season averaging 23.4 points, 14.7 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. The 23.4 points was the top reported mark in the CIF Central Coast Section and No. 20 in the state, and her rebounding totals were No. 3 in the CCS and No. 16 in the state.
Talana Lepolo (Carondelet, Concord) Sr.
The Stanford-bound defensive specialist, who many girls basketball analysts consider the top defender in the state, missed her entire junior COVID-shortened season after transferring from St. Joseph Notre Dame (Alameda) and the CIF North Coast Section would not allow her to just miss the sit-out period. The NCS ruled she also had to sit out the first part of the past season but when she came back the Cougars became legitimate contenders.
Lepolo led the team to a second-place finish in the Platinum Division of the West Coast Jamboree after a 61-50 semifinal win over Archbishop Mitty of San Jose and then a near huge upset after a 56-50 loss to national No. 2 Texas DeSoto. In the playoffs, she had 14 points, eight assists, five steals and three rebounds in a 69-49 NCS Open Division title-game victory over Danville San Ramon Valley that avenged one of the Cougars’ three losses this past season. The win over Mitty earned Carondelet the top seed in the CIF NorCal playoffs, but despite giving it her all she could not get Carondelet a sweep of Mitty after a 72-63 loss. With her future coach Tara VanDerveer looking on, Lepolo who usually doesn’t look to score unless she has to, finished with a game-high 32 points, plus six assists, four rebounds and three steals. For the season, Lepolo averaged 15.4 points, 8.6 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 4.5 steals per game.
Kennedy Smith (Etiwanda) Soph.
The lone sophomore to make the Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year finalist list was just named the CIF Southern Section Open Division Player of the Year by virtue of the Eagles’ 69-57 victory over Sierra Canyon in the CIF Southern Section Open Division championship game. In that game Smith had 19 points, seven rebounds, three steals and three assists.
After a bye for Etiwanda as the top seed in the CIF Southern Regional Open Division playoffs, she finished with a double-double 18 points and 13 rebounds in a 62-51 victory over Corona Centennial. After Sierra Canyon did everything it could to neutralize her and held her to 10 points and eight rebounds in the CIF Southern Regional title game 60-51 loss, Kennedy didn’t get to join her older brother and Damien of La Verne senior RJ Smith in Sacramento where his team won a D1 title.
Smith still had an outstanding season for an Eagles’ team that returns all its top performers except senior Daisia Mitchell, who missed the last game with an injury. For the season, Smith averaged 19.1 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.2 steals, 2.2 assists and 2.1 blocks per game.
Judea “Juju” Watkins (Sierra Canyon, Chatsworth) Jr.
Watkins graces the Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year finalists list for the second straight season only this time it comes on the heels of her leading the Trailblazers to the CIF Open Division state championship with an 85-61 victory over Archbishop Mitty of San Jose. In that game she had 23 points, 19 rebounds, six assists, six blocks and three steals, and dazzled the crowd with her moves.
Juju was dominant all season but starting with the CIF Southern Section Open Division playoffs the 6-foot-1 Watkins averaged 27.4 points and 12.7 rebounds per game for the seven games played. Against Cathedral Catholic in the opening round of the SoCal Open playoffs she went for a triple-double 37 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists. In the CIF Southern Regional title game, Watkins had a double-double 29 points and 13 rebounds in the third-seeded Trailblazers 61-50 victory over top-seeded Etiwanda. For the season, Watkins averaged 25.0 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.7 steals and 1.9 blocks per game.