Quite a ‘rebuilding’ year for Mission Viejo boys basketball

Troy Roelen returned this season to coach Mission Viejo’s boys basketball team after taking a three-year break. He previously coached the team for 12 seasons. (Register file photo)

Here is what Mission Viejo boys basketball coach Troy Roelen wrote in an email regarding his preseason assessment of his team:

“Young, inexperienced. Rebuilding year but will be competitive. We shoot the ball well and have a high basketball IQ.”

More than halfway through the season, Mission Viejo is 16-2 and is on a 12-game winning streak. The Diablos have won two tournament championships and advanced to the final of another tournament.

That’s a fairly decent “rebuilding year.”

“I thought this would be a two-year, three-year reclamation project,” Roelen said this week. “We’re ahead of where I thought we’d be.”

Roelen resumed coaching the Diablos this past spring after three years off. He was forced to vacate the coaching position when the Saddleback Valley Unified School District decided that athletic directors could not also be varsity head coaches. Given the choice, in 2014, Roelen resigned as coach and continued as Mission Viejo athletic director.

Chris Zeller, who played for Roelen at Mission Viejo, coached the Diablos the past three seasons. Roelen, 48, wanted to return to coaching so he stepped down as athletic director and the school dropped Zeller to place Roellen back into the basketball coaching position Roelen held previously for 12 seasons.

A couple of players, including a pair of promising guards who were freshmen last school year, transferred out of Mission Viejo when Roelen became the coach again. Selah Robbins went to Santa Margarita and Langston Redfield went to Capistrano Valley. A very good player transferred to Mission Viejo – Jake Conerty, who was a major contributor at Crean Lutheran last season when Crean won a CIF championship.

Conerty (6-4, 215), a junior point guard who can also play other positions, is averaging 11 points, eight rebounds and four assists a game.

Mission Viejo guard Jake Conerty makes a layup during a nonleague game at Dana Hills High School on Friday night, December 7, 2018. (Photo By Jeff Antenore, Contributing Photographer)

The Diablos have a balanced-scoring lineup. Junior guard Nate Hewitt is averaging 11 points a game. Junior guard Griff Higgins is averaging 10 points a game. Junior guard Rey Cabiling is averaging nine points and senior forward Zack Gald is averaging eight points.

“We’re an unselfish team,” Higgins said. “We trust each other to make plays on offense, and on defense we all know our roles.”

Mission Viejo mostly plays a matchup zone on defense. It’s not an easy defense to play, or play against.

“It’s just good communication,” said Gald of the matchup zone’s effectiveness. “Everything we do starts at the defensive end of the court.”

Mission Viejo center Zack Gald drives to the basket during a nonleague game against Dana Hills on Friday, December 7, 2018. (Photo By Jeff Antenore, Contributing Photographer)

Mission Viejo, 15-14 last year, opened the season with a loss to Edison. The Diablos then went into their Diablo Inferno tournament in which they beat an Orange County preseason top-10 team, Fairmont Prep, before losing to another top-10 team, JSerra, in the tournament championship game.

The Diablos beat Trabuco Hills 60-55 in overtime in the championship game of the Capistrano Valley Christian Eagle Classic tournament. They got their second tournament championship last week when they won the Lahainaluna tournament on Maui.

They have a nonleague win over El Toro and rolled past Beckman 55-26 in the Orange County North/South Challenge.

Maybe Roelen and others in Orange County basketball think Mission Viejo is overachieving. The Diablos players figure the team is where it should be.

“We’re just going game by game,” Gald said. “We expect to win each game we play.”

Roelen, Orange County boys basketball coach of the year in 2012, set up a challenging summer schedule for the Diablos.

“That helped us get ready for league and the hard tournaments we’ve played in,” Higgins said.

Mission Viejo starts South Coast League play next week with three league games, all home games: San Clemente on Monday, Jan. 7; Capistrano Valley, Wednesday, Jan. 9; and Trabuco Hills, Friday, Jan. 11. The Diablos can be considered league favorites of the South Coast, annually one of Orange County’s better boys basketball leagues.

“No way, if you asked me at the beginning of the year, that I’d say we would be 16-2 right now,” Roelen said. “These kids are embracing playing our difficult schedule. They’re pushing their limits.”

And so this so-called rebuilding year might be building toward a league championship — this year.

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