All Ball Sports: Klineman, Ross on way to Tokyo Olympics, Mira Costa Mustangs beat Santa Monica

Mira Costa forward Cole Slusser opened the scoring against Santa Monica with a baseline power drive…

By Paul Teetor

There’s nothing like blowing a 15-point lead to bring out the sunny side of Mira Costa’s hard-driving boys basketball Coach Neal Perlmutter.

“It was nice to see us lose a lead and then get it back and regain our composure,” Perlmutter said without a hint of sarcasm, moments after his team hung on to defeat a scrappy Santa Monica team by a score of 57-53 Friday night. He had good reason to be thankful: in two previous games this season, the Mustangs built  an 8 point lead over Palos Verdes before losing and a 9 point lead over Loyola before suffering another loss.

Friday night’s game was played in front of a surprisingly loud, large and fully masked, home crowd that turned out to cheer on the defending Bay League champs in the Mustang’s new $38 million athletic complex – and in the middle of a still-serious pandemic.

On the next possession Will Householter stopped and popped a 3-pointer that gave the Mustangs a quick 5-0 lead.

What they saw was a tale of two very different halves of basketball.  “In the first half we looked experienced, but in the second half we looked young,” Perlmutter said. Which is a good description of the team he is trying to guide to a second straight league title: experienced but still young.

Experienced because three of his top nine players were part of the team that broke Redondo’s eight year stranglehold on the league championship last season. But young because only one of those five players – sophomore sensation Will Householter — was a starter on that championship team. Another sophomore, shooting guard Dylan Black, was a rotation player but not a starter, as was power forward Jesse Waller.        

This season five of his top nine players  – ever-improving forward Cole Slusser, heady point guard Christian Huang, post beast Luke Stamp, shooting guard Nick Lundy and defensive pest Riley Blomstrand – were all junior varsity players last year who have made the jump to varsity rotation players. And one player, 6-foot-5 starting center Luke Sevier, transferred in from Ambassador.

The biggest change in this year’s team is that Householter, who played a combo forward/guard spot last year and became a first-team All-Bay-league player by virtue of his relentless motor and uncanny nose for the ball in and around the basket, has developed a reliable jump shot and a much improved handle.

So improved that Perlmutter made him the new point guard to replace the departed Max McCalla, who handled the ball most of the time last season for the Mustangs on their way to the title.

“Will is still learning to play the point guard position as the season goes along,” Perlmutter said. “Tonight was only his fifth game as a starter at that position. But somebody had to step up after Max graduated and Will was the logical choice.”

It was only Householter’s fifth game of the season because he missed the first several weeks with a high ankle sprain, similar to the one that sidelined the Lakers LeBron James for six weeks. Black is now out with a high ankle sprain, and Perlmutter said he hopes he can come back for the playoffs but is not counting on it.

Two other players have had shin splints, one a groin problem, and several players missed games due to various other injuries. “My team has had to deal with more injuries this year than my other five teams combined,” Perlmutter said.         

This year Perlmutter is facing an additional hurdle unique to all title teams: every team they play is extra motivated to beat the defending league champs. Already PV and Culver City – new to the Bay League this year — have hung losses on them. Santa Monica – which is also new to the Bay League this year – almost handed them another tough loss.

At first this looked like it would be one of the easiest games the Mustangs would have all year.

Slusser opened the scoring with a baseline power drive and on the next possession Householter stopped and popped a 3-pointer that gave the Mustangs a quick 5-0 lead. Slusser added a 3 of his own, Housholter twice drove hard for a layup in a crowd, and when he swished another 3-pointer Costa had a comfortable 17-13 lead at the end of the first quarter.

Householter, a lefty whose shot had a noticeable hitch in it last season but has smoothed it out this year, kept on firing and hit yet another 3 to produce a 20-15 lead. 

Lundy nailed two foul shots, Slusser scored on a breakaway off a steal, Slusser hit a 3 of his own, and when Sevier scored on a get-out-of-my-way drive the Mustang lead had ballooned to 30-21 with three and a half minutes left in the half.

The ball was popping around the Mustang perimeter as Slusser fed Sevier for a nifty layup, Lundy drilled a 3, and just before the halftime buzzer Riley Blomstrand came off the bench to grab a loose ball and hit a baseline 10-footer for a 37-26 halftime lead.

Then came the third quarter when the Mustangs scored a grand total of five points – four of them in the first two minutes as their lead grew to 41-26. But by the end of the quarter their lead had shrunk to 42-36.

As the fourth quarter started the lead kept melting away and Perlmutter was looking at a nightmare scenario: a third league loss and a third blown big lead.

Finally, with 3:48 left, it happened: Santa Monica, which never stopped playing hard, grabbed a 49-48 lead in front of a stunned Costa crowd. The Mustangs quickly regained the lead at 53-52, but when Slusser was called for traveling with 30 seconds left Santa Monica had a chance to tie or take a lead.

For some reason they took a long 3 pointer that missed badly and Householter got the ball and drove hard to the hoop to draw a foul. He hit both foul shots to build the lead to 55-52. Santa Monica missed another 3-point attempt and 6-foot-4 Luke Stamp, who hadn’t played much all night, muscled his way into the scrum beneath the boards, grabbed the rebound and got fouled.

Known as more of a banger than a shooter, Stamp stepped to the line with seven seconds left. He hit both foul shots – the second one rolled around the rim and in —  and the Mustangs had finally nailed down the desperately needed win.

“Luke has been very solid for us the last few games,” Perlmutter said. “He rebounds well and doesn’t turn the ball over, so I wanted him in there when we needed a rebound.”

Householter finished with 15 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists, while Slusser also finished with 15 points to go along with 3 rebounds and 4 assists. Sevier chipped in with 10 points and 10 rebounds.

The win left Costa with a 5-5 record on the season, and 2-2 in the Bay League.

 “We’re young and still learning how to win,” Perlmutter said. “I take this win as a sign we’re growing in the right direction.”   

He cited Slusser’s emergence as a double figure scorer.

“To win the Bay League you usually need three guys to score in double digits,” he said. “We can usually count on Will and Luke to do that, so if Cole can also do it on a regular basis that will help make us a good team.”

While the chances for a second straight league title are not great with 2 losses already, he said the team’s goal is to make the playoffs.

“Then we’ll take it from there and see how far we can go,” he said. “This is a great group of kids with great team chemistry, and 90 percent of them will be back next year. If nothing else, they’re gaining valuable experience this year that will help us next season.”

He didn’t mention it, but because of the scheduling havoc caused by the pandemic, next season will start just a couple of months after this season ends.

Mira Costa’s Cara Susilo sets up a play against Santa Monica. Photos by Ray Vidal

In the early game, the Mira Costa girls team edged out Santa Monica 39-36. The girls trailed most of the game and were down by 3 points late, but Courtney Lo nailed two foul shots and sophomore sensation Maile Nakaji drilled a 3-pointer to put the Mustangs up by 2. Santa Monica pulled within 37-36, but Nakaji calmly swished two foul shots to put the game away. The win left Costa at 8-2 overall and 4-0 in the Bay League.     

Winslow Smith finds an open shot against Santa Monica. Photo by Ray Vidal

Rivalry game reveals problems

In a Tuesday night contest that set the game of basketball back 30 years, the Mira Costa boys basketball team jumped out to a 20-4 lead over Redondo at the end of the first quarter and wound up winning 42-35. In other words, Redondo actually won the last three quarters by a score of 31-22 but it wasn’t enough to offset the first quarter destruction dished out by the Mustangs.

Mira Costa’s Luke Sevier is blocked at the basket by Redondo’s Nathan Lilian.Photo by Ray Vidal

In a game filled with more turnovers than a vegan bakery, Mustang Coach Neal Perlmutter could only shake his head at what had to be one of the worst rivalry games ever played between the two neighboring schools, who usually put on a great show for the fans.

“It just shows how young we are and how much we still have to learn,” Perlmutter said moments after the game.

The win lifted Costa’s record to 6-5 overall and 3-2 in the Bay League, while Redondo fell to 0-2 overall and 0-2 in the Bay League after missing the first several weeks of the season with a Covid-19 outbreak.

For the record, shooting guard Nick Lundy led the Mustangs with 10 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 steals. Center Luke Sevier had 9 points and 12 rebounds while forward Cole Slusser recorded 9 points and 4 rebounds. Point guard Will Householter chipped in with 8 points, 2 assists and 2 rebounds.

Redondo’s Milaan Gordon let’s loose with a jumper. Photo by Ray Vidal

However, Redondo did not go home completely empty-handed. The girls team easily beat Costa and in the process broke a first-place tie in the Bay League. Redondo is now 5-0 in the league while Costa fell to 4-1.

 

On a sad note, several long-time Mustang fans mentioned that they missed the familiar presence of veteran Frosh/JV assistant coach Dennis “Santa” Roth. Roth, who had been the glue guy for the Mustang boys basketball program for the last 15 years. He passed away last fall at the age of 81 but at least got to see his beloved Mustangs win their first Bay League title in 20 years in February 2020.

He was nicknamed Santa because of his white beard, generous nature and quick wit, which he used to challenge referees and players alike when he felt they were not living up to Mira Costa standards. Every Christmas he would bring in a sack of chocolates, which he called coal, to hand out to the players.

This year his son, James Roth, is serving as an assistant coach.

“It’s nice to have James carry on the Roth legacy and have some kind of continuity with our program,” Perlmutter said. “Dennis loved basketball and he loved coaching, he loved being around the players. He was always the first to joke around with the players when they came to the gym, but he also knew when to show them tough love.  He was a constant in the program for 15 years, and he is sorely missed by everybody.”            

In addition to his son James, Roth is survived by his daughter Julie and by another son, Mike Roth, a Live Oak legend. All are proud Mira Costa graduates.

Two-time Olympic medalist April Ross and former Mira Costa star Alix Klineman with their Manhattan Beach Volleyball Walk of Fame plaques in 2019. The two are the first U.S. beach volleyball team to qualify for the 2021 Beach Volleyball Olympics in Tokyo. Photo by Ray Vidal

A-Team headed to Tokyo — maybe  

The volleyball A-Team consisting of Alix Klimeman and April Ross is headed for the summer Olympics in Tokyo, which will start in little more than two months  – if the Olympics are not cancelled.

According to recent Japanese polling, public opinion has turned sharply against holding the Olympics until the Covid-19 pandemic is completely wiped out. One national poll showed 80 percent of the public is against holding the Olympics this summer.

But the International Olympic Committee, which has the final say, so far has been firm in insisting the games will go on, no matter how the citizens of the host country feel about it. The IOC’s position is that they’ve already postponed the games for a year, which necessitated a great disruption in planning and timing, and they are not about to do it again.

If the IOC continues to hold firmly to its position – and based on past performance it will – that means Manhattan Beach native Klineman and Ross will definitely be competing, once the Olympics start on July 22.

Under Olympic quota rules, each country is allowed to have up to two teams qualify for the games in each gender category. So far, only Klineman and Ross have piled up enough qualifying points to be ensured entry as an American team. The other American spot is being sought by Kerri Walsh and her partner, Brooke Sweat, as well as the teams of  Sarah Sponcil/Kelly Claes and Kelly Kolinske/Emily Stockman.

For the two American spots among the men, Taylor Crabb and 3-time Olympian Jake Gibb are leading the points race, followed by Nick Lucena and 2008 gold medalist Phil Dalhausser. Trevor Crabb and Tri Bourne are still mathematically in the hunt. 

Klineman, the greatest volleyball player in Mira Costa High School history – male or female – said she and Ross are grateful to have clinched a spot in the Games and are now shooting for the overall top ranking, which would give them the top seed in the Olympic Tournament and an easier path to the medal round. 

“I know we are in a great place going into Tokyo, but I still feel like there’s a lot to earn,” she said in a media conference call.           

Ross echoed her confidence in that same call.

“We have the ability to rest when we want to rest, and make sure that we are physically strong and ready,” Ross said. “Health is a priority, for sure. And there are some other things we want to integrate into our game that we’ve been working on that we haven’t been able to push because we’ve been going for that qualifying spot.” 

Oh, and if you’re thinking of traveling to Tokyo to watch the A-Team seek the gold, forget about it: the IOC has already banned spectators from outside Japan.

They’re worried about the pandemic — but not worried enough to postpone it for another year.

Contact: teetor.paul@gmail.com. Follow: @paulteetor. ER

 

                

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Written by: Paul Teetor

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