Las Vegas Marks Final Stop for Cypress Boys’ Empire League Prep

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Even during a post-Christmas visit to the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas, the Cypress High School boys’ basketball team has its collective eyes focused on a singular prize.

“We’re going to try and go compete for a [tournament] championship, and then we come back and we have league,” Coach Derek Mitchell told The Epoch Times, looking ahead to next month’s opening of the Empire League campaign.

The Centurions, from Orange County, California, entered their Dec. 26 Las Vegas Prep Championship opener against Chaparral of Las Vegas with an 8–4 record. Cypress closed pre-Christmas action Dec. 21 with an 85–78 triumph over San Juan Hills of San Juan Capistrano in the 24th annual Orange County North-South Challenge at Tesoro High in Las Flores.

“We’ve played a really tough schedule,” said Mr. Mitchell, whose team has also beaten such other highly regarded opponents as the Anaheim tandem of Canyon and Fairmont Prep, as well as La Habra. The Centurions have also faced challenging foes in Edison of Huntington Beach and Los Alamitos, losing by five and 10 points, respectively.

It’s all part of the plan.

“We’re trying to prepare for our league, where we have Crean Lutheran,” Mr. Mitchell said. “They’re always at the top. They’re the private school. They have the returning MVP in [sophomore guard] Kaiden Bailey—all-league and all-county, as well. Our goal is to be able to compete with them.”

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The Irvine-based Saints have rolled through the Empire League with perfect 10–0 records each of the past three seasons. Cypress has finished second or tied for second each year, with six of its seven league defeats at the hands of Crean Lutheran.

 Senior Jonah Kim (44) plays for the Cypress High School boys’ basketball team. (Courtesy of Arnold Leos)
Senior Jonah Kim (44) plays for the Cypress High School boys’ basketball team. (Courtesy of Arnold Leos)

Led by the senior duo of 6-foot-5 forward Michael Wright and 6-1 guard Jonah Kim, and featuring a heady sophomore point guard in 5-11 sophomore Ryan Gov, the Centurions figure to provide a stiff challenge this season.

“I feel like we just play really well as a team,” Wright told The Epoch Times after he and Gov scored 21 points apiece to highlight the victory over San Juan Hills. “Our friendship is great on and off the court. I feel like not lot of teams have the bond that we have. We’ve all grown up with each other.”

The unusual closeness is not lost on Mr. Mitchell.

“Our boys are playing for each other this year,” he said. “Practices are intense, and then afterwards, everybody’s friends. That’s what we really like.”

It also doesn’t hurt to have a talent like Wright, whose 10 rebounds against San Juan Hills gave him a double-double. He also dazzled with a dizzying array of assists, blocked shots, two 3-point field goals and even a slam dunk.

“He’s a mismatch for any coach because he’s too strong for most guys down low, but if you have size, he can pull you out and hit the three,” Mr. Mitchell said. “He also can isolate a little bit. He’s very unselfish.”

Wright, who thrives on defending in the low post “and just getting physical,” has made significant strides at the defensive end of the floor. Rather than going out of his way in attempting to smother opposing shots, Wright is doing his best to heed the advice of his coach and keep his arms straight up.

“That’s a huge thing I worked on over the summer,” he said. “I have to stay out of foul trouble. The team needs me, and I can’t be doing dumb fouls. I have to be smart.”

 Senior Michael Wright (12) plays for the Cypress High School boys’ basketball team. (Courtesy of Arnold Leos)
Senior Michael Wright (12) plays for the Cypress High School boys’ basketball team. (Courtesy of Arnold Leos)

Gov, meanwhile, has given Cypress an added dimension. In addition to scoring against San Juan Hills, his ball distribution was a big reason that five Centurions reached double figures in points.

Juniors King Birdsong and Jackson Houston finished with 12 points apiece, while Kim added 10.

Gov also did a great job leading the way against an aggressive San Juan Hills press, enabling Cypress to score what Mr. Mitchell estimated to be 20 points in transition.

“He’s very shifty, and he’s probably our best shooter all-around, from anywhere,” the coach said. “We always want to put the ball in his hands at the end of the game. It’s tough for teams to trap him because he can get by, and then he’s little, so he squeezes by guys.”

Gov also nailed eight of nine free throws, including all four in the game’s final 21 seconds, and could probably “take a lot more shots,” according to Mr. Mitchell. There is no confusion for Gov about his primary responsibility, however.

“On offense, sometimes we get stagnant, and we don’t move,” he told The Epoch Times. “We have to get everyone in action, so we start getting good looks for everyone.”

Upon their return from Las Vegas, the Centurions will open their Empire League quest Jan. 5 at Tustin. They will play at Crean Lutheran on Jan. 17 and host the Saints on Jan. 30.

“Our expectation is to win league, beat Crean Lutheran, and go far” in the CIF Southern Section playoffs, Wright said. “That was the goal at the beginning of the season, and it’s the goal now. It doesn’t change.”

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