SANTA CRUZ COUNTY — From top to bottom, the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League might be as talented and as competitive as it’s ever been.

St. Francis High is coming off a historic season in which it won the league title as well as Central Coast Section and California Interscholastic Federation Northern California championships.

Aptos High and Santa Cruz High each return numerous stars after finishing second and third, respectively, and the rivals have started the season a combined 11-3, while also winning two tournament crowns.

And then there’s Soquel High, which has six wins to start the season and has played toe-to-toe with Santa Cruz and Palma, the three-year reigning champ of the Monterey Bay League Gabilan division and a CIF NorCal finalist a year ago.

“This year our league might be the most balanced it’s been in a while,” said St. Francis head coach Ed Kelly.

Kelly and the Sharks are the returning champs but might not be the favorites to repeat after losing eight players to graduation. Last year’s league M.V.P., point guard Sandor Rene Rodriguez, is gone and so is sharpshooting guard Dominic Figueroa and 6-foot-4, 270-pound center Ruben Ibarra. St. Francis’ scrappy bench, which helped the program reach its first-ever CIF state final, was also drained by graduation.

The Sharks, however, do have star senior forwards Chase Watkins and Jason Gallo returning to the starting lineup and Kelly’s son, E.J., running the point after serving as the backup as a sophomore last season.

Watkins, who is 6-foot-4, paced the Sharks in scoring with 17.4 points per game last season but has not played this season because of an abdomen injury. The high-flying scoring machine that is committed to play NCAA Division I baseball at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo next season is expected to make his return in early January.

In the meantime, Gallo, a 6-foot-5 rebounding machine with a smooth jumper, has guided the Sharks to a 6-2 start and a pair of tournament finals, while the newcomers have tried to catch up to the speed of the varsity game.

Forwards C.J. Gomez, Bobby Rigor, Nic Martinez and Jake Taylor and guards Andrew Seymour and Joseph Ramirez — all of whom are juniors — have all been tasked with replacing last year’s solid crop of complementary players.

“We’ve had our ups and downs which does not surprise me with the amount of new players that we have,” Kelly said. “They’ve all had the flashes here and there … it’s about making those plays more consistently.”

Over at Aptos, the Mariners not only return their top three scorers but head coach Joseph Smith is also back in the fold. Smith, who took over the program during the 2003-04 campaign, stepped away last season to become an assistant principal at the school and assistant coach Brian Bowyer took over as the interim head coach. But with the blessing of Aptos principal Peggy Pughe, Smith returned to the sidelines.

“It’s just like riding a bike,” the coach said of getting back into the flow of things. “Once that ball is thrown up in the air it all comes back.”

With Smith gone last season, Bowyer guided a defensive-minded Aptos squad to the CCS playoffs for the 14th straight season. Guard Rashaun Wooden, wing Forrest Hays and center Blake Welle all return from that team for their senior seasons.

Wooden is a fast-twitch 6-foot guard that can pour in 20 points on any given night; Hays is a do-it-all 6-foot-2 playmaker; and 6-foot-7 Welle is a presence in the paint that can also knock down a shot from deep.

Guard Jackson Carver and forwards Logan Southall, Joe Mendoza and Gino Stefanini are also seniors for Aptos, which has nine players measuring in at 6-feet or taller.

Smith also credited the talented junior class — guards Max Pepperdine and Silvano Lopez and forwards Anthony Sanchez, Shane Modena, Logan Feldbrugge and Hunter Matys — for getting the team off to a hot start.

“The practices have been really competitive and that’s helped push us,” Smith said.

Last year’s league title chase was somewhat of a two-horse race between St. Francis and Aptos early in the season but things got a little interesting with the emergence of youthful Santa Cruz late in the year.

It seems like the Cardinals, who graduated only three from a roster of 17, have continued to develop since the end of last season. Their lone loss this season was a seven-point setback against state-ranked Central Catholic.

Speedy 5-foot-10 senior guard Max Dehart and shotmaking 6-foot-4 junior forward Robert Bishop are just two of many weapons the lengthy Cardinals will throw at opponents.

“They’re a solid team,” Smith said. “They’ve impressed me when I’ve seen them live.”

Soquel, too, figures to factor into the league title race. Led by longtime head coach Stu Walters, the Knights are off to their best start since the 2012-13 season, a year in which they won the SCCAL crown and advanced to the NorCal Division IV semifinals.

The Knights play tight defense with junior bigs Lincoln Cooley and Zeke Thomas — 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-3, respectively — controlling the paint and 6-foot-1 senior guards Andrew Schumacher and Ryan Murtha provide the scoring.

With several sizable players at its disposal, Scotts Valley High could also be a contender in the SCCAL. The Falcons feature three players 6-foot-7 or taller, including senior bigs Carson Spence (6-7) and Tyler Harris (6-10). Their ace scorer, senior guard Reece Stratford, is also tall, measuring in at 6-foot-4.

Harbor High and San Lorenzo Valley High also compete in the SCCAL and neither will be taken lightly.

“I really mean it when I say it’s going to be a battle,” Smith said. “Any given night, anybody can win. It’s going to be fun.”

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