The Westchester High School boys basketball team will open the 2004-05 season ranked by USA Today as the number one high school basketball team in the nation.

But Westchester High School coach Ed Azzam said the top ranking doesn’t change what the Comets are aiming for this year.

“It’s nice, but it doesn’t mean anything,” said Azzam, who will enter his 26th year as coach. “We haven’t done anything or played a game yet, but it tells us how much talent we have.”

The Comets’ roster is loaded with hoops talent, which is one of the reasons Azzam said he thought the team would be ranked in the top five in most national polls.

Nine seniors return to the Westchester team this season, and the players expect to make up for missed opportunities from last year.

“We only lost a couple of key players and we have almost everyone back,” he said. “We expect to win the league, city and state titles.”

Another factor for Westchester’s supreme rating, according to Azzam, was the team’s performance last season when it finished with a 24-2 record as one of the best teams in the country.

USA Today ranked the Comets 12th in the nation for the 2003-04 season.

Last season’s national ranking might have been even higher if the Comets had not been banned from the playoffs by the Los Angeles City Section of the California Interscholastic Federation.

The City Section ruled that Westchester had to skip the playoffs because it improperly recruited one of its star players, Amir Johnson, who was deemed ineligible to play in December.

Azzam said the City Section reversed its decision in April, making Johnson eligible again, but it was too late because Westchester’s chance at a third consecutive state title was gone.

“The charges were bogus,” he said. “What the city did was not fair.”

Westchester probably would have been the top contender for the 2004 state title, considering that the Comets defeated the eventual Division I state champion team, Fairfax, twice in the season.

The Comets didn’t leave the season without at least one title, the Western League crown, but the team felt something was missing.

“The players were obviously very disappointed because they had no chance to defend their title,” Azzam said. “They knew it was unfair but they handled it very well.

“The kids and staff knew who the best team was.”

While Westchester’s successful season was cut short last year, the Comets have been preparing for redemption ever since.

The talented team has four key players who have already signed on to play at the collegiate level, and five other seniors who have scholarship possibilities.

Amir Johnson, a six-foot-ten-inch post/wing, is one of the top 25 ranked players in the country by USA Today and has signed with the University of Louisville.

Marcus Johnson, a six-foot- seven guard/wing, is also a nationally ranked player and has signed with the University of Connecticut.

Two players have signed with California State University, Fullerton — Gerard Moret, a six-foot-five guard, and Jarrel Lake, a six-foot-eight wing/post.

“I was very pleased with the signings,” Azzam said.

Other top returning seniors on the powerful roster include Joey Knox, a six-foot guard, and Ray Reese, a six-foot-six wing.

While Amir Johnson is sure to be one of the team leaders, the Comets will have to manage without him until about late December because Johnson broke his left foot in early November.

Most basketball teams would only dream of having one of the star Comets on their roster, but Westchester also expects results from its talent.

Amir Johnson, who had to sit out for most of last season after only four games, will look to contribute to Westchester’s big list of goals for this season.

“Year in and year out there’s a lot of pressure,” Azzam said. “We expect to be competitive in every game. When we lose, it’s news.”

The path to titles will not be a cakewalk for the Comets, who face one of the more challenging schedules in the country.

“It’s a good schedule but it’s not terribly difficult,” he said.

Westchester will have enough of a challenge in the Los Angeles area, having to battle Fairfax High twice in league play. Fairfax is USA Today’s 12th-ranked team.

The Comets’ strength will also be tested against San Joaquin Memorial High of Fresno Saturday, January 15th, and the USA Today second-ranked team Oak Hill Academy of Virginia Saturday, February 5th.

The new season begins for Westchester at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, December 7th, against King-Drew Medical in the Comets’ own tournament, the Westchester Tip-Off Classic.

“The kids are working hard and they’re extremely receptive to the coaching,” Azzam said. “We’re going to work hard in practice and come out prepared.

“If we’re mentally focused we should do well.”

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