Reigning league champs banking on total team effort

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© Richard Gillard/Acorn Newspapers
Payton Palmer-Newton, left, and the Rio Mesa High Spartans are shooting for back-to-back Pacific View League titles. The Spartans have won two of their first four games. © Richard Gillard/Acorn Newspapers
A superstar moved on to the next level. The Spartans will survive.Rio Mesa High’s boys’ basketball team wants to defend its Pacific View League championship without Joseph Soto—a dynamic point guard who graduated in the spring—leading the way.

The Spartans rely on teamwork to win games.

“They’re very, very unselfish,” Rio Mesa head coach Chris Ruffinelli said. “We have 11 guys all on the same page, working for the same common goal, which is to defend the league title.

“In my seven years here, this is the most team-oriented group I’ve had.”

Rio Mesa utilizes quickness and athleticism. Although the Spartans are taller than last winter’s edition, they’re not quite as physical.

The Spartans spread the ball around, displaying patience while attacking the rim. They primarily play man-to-man defense but also mix things up with zones, traps and presses.

They still need to work on boxing out and rebounding, Ruffinelli said.

Players are learning to embrace their enhanced roles with greater responsibilities.

Dillan West, a senior small forward, is a leader who’s stepping up in the early going.

West said he likes this squad’s versatility and depth.

“We have a lot of options this year,” West said. “We’re a deep team. When our bench comes in, there’s no drop-off.”

An underrated 6-foot-1 finisher in the paint, West said he’s worked on a midrange jumper and his ball-handling skills. He’s already been offered a scholarship to play hoops at William Jessup University in Rocklin, Calif., but he’s keeping his options open.

Ruffinelli said West is a tireless worker. Sometimes the coach has to kick him out of the gym two hours after practice ends.

“He’s one of the hardest working kids I’ve ever coached,” Ruffinelli said of West.

The senior said the Spartans can win a league crown if they’re focused and hungry.

“We can’t get too high or too low,” West said. “We have to listen to our coach and play hard.

“I’m going to push as hard as I can to get a title. I’m not going to slow down this year.”

Nick Hernandez, a senior southpaw shooting guard, is known for his 3-point range.

In an effort to find higherpercentage shots, however, the Spartans hoisted only 14 treys in the first four games. Hernandez has reined in an itchy trigger finger, draining three of five shots from downtown in that span.

Hernandez, who takes pride in his defense, has adjusted nicely after connecting on 26 percent of his trifectas a season ago.

“Nick’s developed a much better shot selection,” the coach said. “A couple times he faked an outside shot, got the guy in the air and looked to try to get a closer basket. I’m impressed with the adjustments he’s made in his game.”

Hernandez believes Rio Mesa can earn another league title.

“We’re looking forward to taking the title again,” said Hernandez, who competes in the 400-meter run, long jump and high jump in track.

“We were a good team last year, but I think this team has more chemistry. We get along very well. It’s more of a team effort. Everyone brings something to the table.”

Payton Palmer-Newton and Martel Tyler share minutes at point guard.

While Palmer-Newton runs a steady offense, Tyler takes advantage of his court vision and ability to adjust on the fly to make big plays.

Palmer-Newton, an outside hitter in volleyball, is having a ball in his first season on varsity.

“I love it. I’m enjoying it every single game,” the senior said. “My role is to be a passer and distributor.”

Tyler, a junior, is also a multisport athlete. He starred at running back and falcon in football, and he’s a sprinter and long jump specialist in track.

“I like to compete,” Tyler said. “I’m competitive and I like to win.”

Tyler said he’s worked on improving his dribbling and shooting. The Spartans hope he can work on making better decisions.

Anthony Teart, a guard/forward, improved this offseason. The athletic Teart is Rio Mesa’s designated shutdown defender.

Reggie Dixon, a 6-foot-4 junior, is a lean and lanky center. He’s silky smooth like Kevin Durant. Dixon elevates well and plays above the rim.

The Spartans boast a solid bench.

Mitchell Haerterich is a fundamentally sound and smart forward. Power forward/center Ben Quantock is an active, versatile athlete who can shoot a midrange jumper. Haerterich and Quantock both played football.

Tanner Wrout, a football star who recently went on an Ivy League recruiting trip, is the team’s physically strongest player.

A power forward, Wrout gives this team necessary toughness.

Rio Mesa counts on Andrew Ariaza, a volleyball standout, to collect blocks and rebounds.

Ante Joyner, a 6-foot-3 junior transfer from Quartz Hill, is awaiting clearance from the section to play varsity basketball.

Anthony Unchangco and Adam Samples are assistant coaches.

“I like our versatility,” Ruffinelli said. “I’ve enjoyed this group a lot. It’s a fun group of guys to be around.”

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