Mater Dei teams shoot to top of SoCal class

(This story appeared in the October Los Angeles edition of ESPN Rise Magazine.)

One day last season when both the Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) boys' and girls' basketball teams were looking sluggish, their coaches got tired of yelling and decided to switch things up.

It was time for a scrimmage. Boys against girls.

Some girls' teams might have been intimidated at the prospect of going up against a group that featured a frontline that went 6-8, 6-10 and 6-10. But the trio of Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Alexyz Vaioletama and Jordan Adams weren't scared. In fact, they were leading the trash-talking charge.

"Me, Kaleena and Lex go to the gym and play against grown men all the time," Adams says. "It was just another pick-up game for us. It was a lot of fun."

The game might not have been close -- "they blew us out," Vaioletama says -- but the guys were impressed with their counterparts.

"They played us tough," senior Gary Franklin says. "We had so much more size, though, that any time we wanted to score we could just get a layup."

That practice, held in Mater Dei's multimillion-dollar, 3,200-seat gymnasium with eight high-major D-I recruits on the floor, is a good example of why Mater Dei basketball is a program unlike any other. The school has become the UConn of high school hoops, with two dominant teams that can each compete for a state title every year.

That's no different this season, as the boys' team features three senior guards rated in the ESPNU 100. Franklin, a 6-2 point guard, is rated the nation's No. 66 recruit, Tyler Lamb, a 6-5 shooting guard, is rated No. 38 and Keala King, a 6-6 shooting guard who transferred from Dominguez (Compton, Calif.), is rated No. 53.

Having that kind of star power is nothing new for Gary McKnight. The 28th-year coach has led the Monarchs to 19 CIF Southern Section crowns and six state titles.

Even with all that history, last year's team had a chance to be one of the best in McKnight's tenure. The addition of the UCLA-bound Lamb, who transferred from Colony (Ontario, Calif), meant all five starters were future Division I ballers. Twins David and Travis Wear (now at North Carolina) and Andy Brown (now at Stanford) led the senior contingent and were joined by then-juniors Lamb and Franklin, who at the time had pledged to USC but de-committed after the Tim Floyd/O.J. Mayo debacle.

Things were going according to plan until Brown went down with a season-ending knee injury and the Monarchs lost in the Southern Section IAA finals and then again in the second round of the SoCal Division I regionals.

On the girls' side, this season's squad boasts a trio of talented players to match the boys' team. Mosqueda-Lewis, a 6-0 junior shooting guard, is rated No. 2 nationally in the ESPNU HoopGurlz Super 60 and Vaioletama, a 6-2 junior power forward, is rated No. 11. Adams, a 6-0 point guard, is easily among the country's top sophomores.

The girls' team is new to the spotlight, but the program appears to be a budding dynasty under third-year coach Kevin Kiernan. In the two years prior to Kiernan's arrival, the Monarchs went 28-27. In his first two seasons, they've gone 57-5 and won the 2009 Southern Section crown.

Kiernan did start his Mater Dei career with one big advantage over his predecessor. Well, make that two big advantages: Mosqueda-Lewis and Vaioletama. They were freshmen in Kiernan's first year, and their presence made it clear the Monarchs' fortunes were about to change.

As a freshman, Mosqueda-Lewis was the team's leading scorer. As a sophomore, she was Gatorade State Player of the Year, beating out six McDonald's All-Americans from California for the honor.

"She could leave right now and go to a major Division I program, get thrown into the lineup and score," Kiernan says.

Vaioletama wasn't as polished as Mosqueda-Lewis, but she had plenty of raw ability. And in the past two years, she's really put it all together.

"Sometimes she gets overlooked because of the type of kid she is," Kiernan says. "She doesn't need the ball, she doesn't call attention to herself, she just plays hard all the time."

The team went 25-4 in Kiernan's first year, losing to Lynwood in the Southern Section playoffs. Last season, Adams came aboard and ran the point with impressive confidence for a first-year player.

The Monarchs won their first 32 games before dropping a 44-38 decision to Brea Olinda in the SoCal Division II regional finals. Up to that point, the young Monarchs hadn't been in a close game, with their narrowest margin of victory being nine points.

"We learned our lesson that we can't take these teams lightly," Vaioletama says. "We'll do whatever it takes. We walked out of the gym in tears last year and want to make sure that never happens again."

Franklin and Lamb know the feeling. After last year's disappointment, they're excited to see what 2009-10 brings. With the loss of Brown and the Wear twins, some expect the boys' team to take a step back. But Franklin and Lamb think the Monarchs' new high-octane offense can flourish with the guards they have.

"Even though we don't have that size, I think we can be more effective offensively," Franklin says. "We'll get the ball to a lot of people and be more exciting to watch."

McKnight knows he's going to need even more out of Lamb and Franklin than he got last year. He feels Lamb was tentative at the beginning of the season as the new guy on a team full of established stars. That won't be the case this time around.

"Watching him play this summer, he really got after it," McKnight says.

A year after Franklin played the role of distributor, he's going to be leaned on to score more this season.

"Gary's just an outstanding guard," McKnight says. "He can play either spot. He's got a lot of drive and charisma."

Lamb and Franklin spent the summer playing on the same AAU team as King, giving them a leg up on developing chemistry with their new teammate. But the star trio on the girls' squad did them one better. All three made the USA U16 National Team that won a gold medal in Mexico at the FIBA Americas U16 Championship.

Combine that cohesiveness with the abundant talent on both Mater Dei rosters, and each team could be unbeatable this season.

Unless, of course, they play each other.

Ryan Canner-O'Mealy covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.