The Venice High School boys basketball team may play in one of the toughest leagues in the Southland, but coach Rasheed Hazzard said the Gondoliers still expect to hang with the best in the Western League this season.

Venice ended last season with an 11-13 overall record and finished fourth in the Western League, which includes two of the top teams in the country, Westchester High School and Fairfax High School.

Venice reached the Los Angeles City Championship Division playoffs, but made an early exit with a first-round loss to Dorsey High School.

The Gondoliers lost nine seniors to graduation, some of whom are now playing at the collegiate level.

“We’re trying to build a solid program that has character,” said Hazzard, a former Venice High basketball athlete who enters his fourth year as coach.

The Gondos opened the 2004-05 season with a 54-40 victory at Bell High School Monday, November 29th, before losing their next two games to Muir High (81-48) and Taft High (84-60) in the Pasadena Rose City Tournament.

Venice was not dealt an easy hand in the Western League, having to battle the two top guns of Westchester and Fairfax twice in the season, but the team expects to stand up to the challenge.

“We expect to be competitive in every game,” Hazzard said.

“Against Fairfax and Westchester you have to play perfectly to win, but to be competitive you just have to believe in yourself. I think we can finish in the top three in the league.”

In order to make some noise in the league this season, the Gondos will rely on some experience from their top returning athletes.

The key players returning on the roster include senior Ryan Clayman, a six-foot-one point guard, junior Calvin Morgan, a six-foot-four guard, junior Ryan Flynn, a six-foot-five forward, junior Flynn Clayman, a six-foot-eight center and junior Noah Gotlieb, a six-foot-two guard.

Another one of the Venice veteran players is Larry Johnson, a six-foot-five senior forward who was a big factor in the opening victory, staying in the game despite a broken wrist to score 16 points and grab 15 rebounds. Johnson will be out for an extended period of time, Hazzard said.

“Our guard play should be pretty good,” he said. “We have a well balanced team.”

Although Westchester and Fairfax are sure to provide some of the biggest challenges on the schedule for Venice, the team will need to “rise to the occasion and make the plays that are going to be there,” Hazzard said.

The rest of the teams in the Western League, including Palisades, Hamilton and University, are also up for the challenge, and Venice will have to make sure not to let those teams take the glory away.

“Every game takes on equal weight,” Hazzard said. “We want to beat everybody and compete with every team we play. We have to play physical and really get after it.”