Cuesta College

Cuesta has an almost-new men’s basketball roster

In recent years at least, there have been two kinds of men’s basketball teams at Cuesta College.

Those dominated by experienced sophomore leadership and those defined by heavy freshman representation. 

The two-year program has finagled itself into a two-year rotation where a large majority of the players either reside in one class or the other.

The most success has come under the sophomore-dominated squads. Such was the case last year, when all-state sophomore honorees Malte Kramer and Calen Coleman led the Cougars to a 24-8 record, a Western State Conference-North title at 11-1, and helped Cuesta advance to the Southern California Regional finals. 

Even while enjoying the fruits of last season, Cougars head coach Rusty Blair knew the ebb and flow of junior college basketball would hand him a very young team heading into the start of today’s Rabobank Tournament, the first of a three-day event hosted at Cuesta.

Cougars women’s head coach Ron Barba was thinking his team would be able to take a step forward from last season’s 13-14 overall record with three double-digit scorers back for their sophomore seasons. But unexpected injuries have put the Cuesta women into rebuilding mode right alongside the men.

“We have scorers galore,” said Blair, entering his 21st season with the Cougars. “There’s no problem about that. My question offensively is will they be able to get open against intense pressure. They seem to think they can outscore anyone, but they haven’t faced hard defensive pressure yet.”

As has been the case in recent years, the Cuesta men’s roster is dominated by international players. Of the 14 players listed on the roster for last week’s intrasquad scrimmage, four had hometowns in the United States. Eight of the international players, Blair said, have experience playing for some level of their national teams back home, most of which are in Europe.

The recruiting strategy has worked well for Blair, who’s sent Kramer to Pepperdine and Roger Guardia to Cal State Fullerton in the past three years. 

Starting with today’s game against Los Angeles Southwest at 8 p.m., the head coach is going to see if any of the 11 freshmen have the potential to become the next Division I scholarship player from Cuesta. 

Three sophomores do lead the lineup. Point guard Kenny Robinson, shooting guard Jeremy Landenbergue and forward Plamen Hristov are all planning to start. The trio combined to average 21.1 points per game last season. 

Sharpshooter Vasil Bachev is penciled in at small forward after leading the Bulgarian National Junior team to a fourth- place in the European Championships in 2011. Center Mohamed Ali Ben Ammar (6-8) was one of the final cuts from the Tunisian Olympic team that faced the U.S. Dream Team in London. 

From there, Blair said there isn’t much dropoff from the sixth man to the 12th man.

Because most of the players are new, he does question their preparedness for the junior college action in California.

“Any of those guys could step in and be a potential star,” Blair said. “Once again, who’s going to make the adjustment to the level that we’re playing against.”

The Cuesta women had a good idea who would star for them. 

Sophomore point guard Katie Rodriguez scored a team-high 12.1 points per game last year. With former Atascadero High standout Alyssa Palma (also 12.1 points per game) and forward Aria Johnson (10.1 points per game) also back, Barba had a solid nucleus returning. 

But when Rodriguez tore her ACL in a recent practice, it caused a domino affect that has Barba searching for answers.

“The whole gym became silent, and we all knew something bad happened,” Barba said about the scene when Rodriguez went down. “I canceled the rest of practice because everybody else was in shock.”

The Cougars brought in freshman Miriam Zabinski, who scored 14.6 points per game for Valley Center High in a season where the Jaguars reached the quarterfinals of the CIF-San Diego Section playoffs.

Fellow freshman Many Legualt scored 13.8 points per game at North County Christian last season, and the Cuesta women also have an international presence, defensive stopper Priscilla Kluis of the Netherlands. 

The Cougars open their season next Thursday in tournament action at Modesto Junior College.

“We do have some kids coming back who I think will help,” Barba said. “Our biggest concern now is getting the point guard position taken care of. But if you don’t have it, there’s not much you can do.”