With five players returning from last year’s Western State Conference championship squad, the Cuesta College men’s basketball team is scheduled to open its season this weekend at home at the Rabobank Tournament.
The Cougars are coming off a 19-10 season and will begin pursuit of a third consecutive conference title at 8 p.m. Friday against West Hills. Other first-round tournament matchups include Hancock and College of the Sequoias at 2 p.m., followed by Saddleback against West Valley at 4 p.m. and Cañada matches up with Fullerton at 6 p.m.
Four of the eight teams in the field reached the postseason last season, including defending California Community College Athletic Association state champion Saddleback. Semifinal games will be held Saturday and the championship game is scheduled for 5 p.m. Sunday.
Cuesta’s 14-man roster is made up of nine sophomores and a handful of talented transfers. With that veteran experience in place under 24th-year head coach Rusty Blair, the Cougars seem capable of competing for a fifth consecutive playoff berth and 17th overall with Blair at the helm.
Sophomore point guard Beñat Hevia is expected to direct the Cuesta offense after earning first-team all-WSC accolades a year ago. A native of San Sebastian, Spain, Hevia averaged 7.8 points and a team-high 4.1 assists per game as a freshman. Also in the mix at the point guard position will be sophomore Daniel Solis and freshman Karem Özel, who has experience playing for his native Turkish National Team.
“He is the most talented player on the team,” Blair said. “He is too good to sit and must be on the floor. Özel is a complete player and can do everything on the floor. He is also one of the team leaders.”
Nick Hammink, who spent last season at Clarendon College in Texas, and Mathijs Van der Mars, a sophomore transfer from Simon Fraser University in Canada, both bring immediate size to the backcourt. The two transfers, both from Netherlands, are each listed at 6-foot-5.
Russian forward Evgeniy Moiseev also returns after earning all-conference honors as a freshman. The 6-5, 200-pound sophomore averaged 8.3 points and 5.1 rebounds last season and ranked second on the team with 30 made 3-pointers.
At the other forward spot, sophomore Rafail Eleftheriou is back after contributing 6.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game a year ago. He will be backed up by transfer Ryan Hammink — Nick’s twin brother — and sophomore returner Ben Peterson.
Sophomore center Roberto Mantovani is expected to be Cuesta’s anchor in the middle after transferring from Benedict College in South Carolina during the offseason. The 6-8, 235-pound Mantovani scored 6.8 points and pulled down 5.3 rebounds per game as a freshman.
“He is an inside presence,” Blair said. “He will rebound, play defense and score.”
47th annual Rabobank Tournament, first round
2 p.m.: Hancock vs. Sequoias
4 p.m.: Saddleback vs. West Valley
6 p.m.: Cañada vs. Fullerton
8 p.m.: West Hills vs. Cuesta