Doug Mitchell has coached two state-championship teams in 24 seasons at
Bishop Montgomery (Torrance, Calif.)
His present squad seems determined to become the third.
At 19-0 the Knights are off to one of the best starts in program history, moving up to No. 2 in California and No. 8 in the country in this latest Freeman Computer Rankings
after a 74-63 nonleague triumph Saturday at national No. 40 St. John Bosco (Bellflower), a game in which the Knights never trailed despite playing without starting point guard Larry Taylor III
The co-ed Catholic school with approximately 1,200 students competes in Division IV in the playoffs, yet is currently third in the
MaxPreps Southern California Boys Basketball Rankings
behind Division I powerhouses Santa Ana Mater Dei and Long Beach Poly, each of which has a much larger enrollment.
So how have the Knights (No. 8 in the Xcellent 25
) been able to rise as high as they are in the rankings?
Simple. They play quality teams and they beat them.
Two reasons the Knights remain undefeated going into Wednesday night's Del Rey League contest against La Salle (Pasadena) are experience and depth.
"We went 23-5 last year and everyone's back, so I expected us to be good," said Mitchell, who notched his 500th victory in the Knights' season opener and has since improved his career record to 518-136. "We're a stronger, wiser and more mature team."
Eight of Bishop Montgomery's 13 players are seniors and three more are juniors. The seniors include Taylor, Pepperdine-bound shooting guard Lamond Murray Jr.
(the leading scorer at 20 points per game), 6-foot-7 forward Ognjen Miljkovic
(who scored 23 points against St. John Bosco), 6-10 center Stefan Jovanovic
(who has signed with Hawaii) and guard Niko Filipovich
, a Hawaii commit.
The team's second-leading scorer at 16 points per game, sophomore shooting guard Stephen Thompson Jr.
isn't even a starter, but in Mitchell's seven-deep rotation the reserves play equal minutes to, if not more than, the starters.
"Some of it depends on the team we're playing, to get the right matchups, and some of it is who has the hot hand that day," Mitchell said. "It makes it so much easier as a coach when you've got that kind of versatility. There are so many guys I can count on to do the job. It gives me more options at the end of close games."
Believing that complacency may have cost the Knights last season, Mitchell purposely beefed up their schedule this winter and moved the St. John Bosco game closer to the playoffs as part of his plan to have his players primed for the postseason.
"Last year we played [St. John Bosco] in mid-December, before league started," Mitchell recalled. "We didn't have enough of the tough, close games before the playoffs and I thought it hurt us because that took some of the edge off."
The strategy has worked to perfection so far, as Bishop Montgomery appears to be getting better and better. The Knights won the Westchester, Redondo and San Luis Obispo Mission Prep tournaments, dealing Seattle Prep (the No. 2 team in Washington) its first loss along the way, and they have won all but two of their games by double digits.
Perhaps what has fueled the fire for Bishop Montgomery's impressive start more than anything is motivation. The Knights felt they were good enough to win the Southern Section title last season but got upset by Crespi (Encino) in the Division IV-AA quarterfinals. That defeat lingered in their minds all summer.
"We learned from that and it's made us better," Murray said. "We can't take any plays off and we have to take every opponent serious. We have confidence we can win state but we have to stay humble. We haven't accomplished anything yet."
Apparently the Knights didn't forget last year's loss to St. John Bosco either.
"Yeah, I remember it. They beat us by two at the buzzer," Murray said, shaking his head. "That's why we were so focused on winning this time. Besides that, they're ranked very high and are one of the best teams we'll play so we knew we had to be ready to play our best."
Since 1989, Mitchell has guided the Knights to four section titles (including three straight from 2000-02) along with back-to-back state championships in 2000-01. He has implemented a proven system that has produced 25 All-CIF selections, two state Players of the Year (Errick Craven in 2001 and Justin Cobbs in 2009) and two All-Americans (Craven in 2001 and Fred Washington in 2003).
The Knights' season-opening streak is impressive, but Mitchell recalls that one of his teams won 26 straight games en route to the Division III state title. Bishop Montgomery last reached the state finals four years ago, losing by one point to Salesian (Richmond) in the Division IV game at Arco Arena in Sacramento.
"This is the best start we've had since I've been here... still the most important game to win is your last one," Mitchell said. "That's been our goal since the season began."
Capturing the section crown will be no small task because Division IV-AA is stacked with the likes of JSerra Catholic (San Juan Capistrano), Crespi, Serra (Gardena), Harvard-Westlake (Studio City), Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth), Price (Los Angeles) and Windward (Los Angeles).
However, Bishop Montgomery figures to be the team to beat, having already routed league rival Serra twice (by margins of 17 and 24) and Price by 36 points.