The American Canyon High boys basketball program had serious momentum after reaching the playoffs for the first time last year.

Head coach Brett Wedding expected 10 returners to lead the Wolves back to the postseason in their final season as a Sac-Joaquin Section member.

He even scheduled the toughest preseason of his four years at the helm. But two of those underclassmen suffered torn anterior cruciate ligaments, another moved, and another didn’t try out.

The six seniors who did return are very talented, though. Several of them played for Wedding’s AC Basketball Club over the summer.

Five were evaluated favorably at the annual Bay Area Competition Clinic, which helps with college exposure, with Malik Ghiden making the top 10 list out of about 175 Northern California players.

Since receiving All-Solano County Athletic Conference Honorable Mention and being named an All-County Offensive Player of the Year finalist last season, the 6-foot-3 senior has ramped up his game considerably. He seems to bring up the intensity of the whole team with his electrifying dunks and blocks.

“Malik’s been putting in a lot of work in the offseason on his own, doing extra workouts, going to camps and showcases, and it’s showing,” Wedding said. “He’s scoring a lot, rebounding, getting above the rim, and we hope he can continue to lead us. He’s very good-natured. It’s rare to see him upset.”

Despite being without four key players, Wedding seems to enjoy this year’s squad.

“We don’t have a whole lot of attitude issues. We have really good kids, who get really good grades and are positive, so they’re nice to coach,” he said. “We’re looking for a lot of our seniors to be leaders.”

They include Joee Gantan, Davin Lusung, Tyler Simms and John Wade, who were listed as “Names to Note” at the competition clinic.

“John’s grown a lot, and we’re going to need a lot of good minutes out of him this year,” Wedding said. Lusung, an All-County Newcomer of the Year finalist last season, is back with his wide array of skills.

“Davin is a great point guard, another kid that just works really hard. You never have to question his effort. He’s all over the place. His hands are always active and he gets a lot of tips and rebounds. What’s nice about him is he’s always looking to make a pass to someone else, so he’s a guy who’s always trying to make people around him better, which is nice.”

Unfortunately for the Wolves, Gantan – an All-Napa County Player of the Year finalist last season who also received All-SCAC Honorable Mention, is sidelined by a knee injury and Wedding doesn’t know when he’ll be able to play.

“Joey has been a big player for us the last couple of years, and I think it’s a recurring injury that happened last year and keeps flaring up,” the coach said. “I don’t know when he’s going to be back – I’m not a doctor – but he’s going to be out for a while. I’ll just wait for him to be ready to go. He’s at practice every day – not going 100 percent, but he’s there, cheering on his teammates, supporting the team.”

Also back for American Canyon (3-3) are seniors Kyle Tabas and Cameron Williams.

Sharpshooting sophomore Roman Madayag is one of the new players who make up most of the team.

“Roman plays hard,” Wedding said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that just play real hard and if we share the ball and take the open shot, we look a lot better than if we play one-on-one basketball.”

The newcomers also include two stars of other sports playing high school basketball for the first time – senior LaVar Seay, who quarterbacked the football team to the second round of the playoffs this fall, and junior Billy Biondini, who clinched the boys tennis team’s first-ever playoff win in the spring.

Seay is the only football player on the team, just as Gamon Howard was the last two years.

“We welcomed LaVar with open arms. He’s a big body that we need,” Wedding said. “We’re usually smaller than every team we play, so one extra rebounder is nice to have – and he’s a competitor. He’s used to winning, so he’s a nice addition to the team. It’d be nice to have a few more football players.”

Lyle Lacson was the team manager last year and is now a senior on the team.

Along with Biondini, juniors new to the varsity are Xavier Oakley, Markest Johnson and Anthony Bitanga-Nguyen. Rounding out the team are sophomores Oliver Aandahl and Matthew Clinton.

“We have a lot of guys with good ball handling skills,” Wedding said. “We definitely have work to do, but I think they’re up for the challenge.”

After starting 5-0 last year, the Wolves lost their second game – this season – to a De Anza team that’s now 3-0.

“De Anza’s pretty good and they took it to us. They were hungry. They came out pretty aggressive and played hard the entire game, regardless of the score, and that’s what you want,” Wedding said. “To be honest, it’s good that that happened early in the season so we know it’s going to take a lot of hard work to accomplish the goals we have.

“We had a tough preseason last year and going into this year I knew we would have some key returners and some upcoming guys who are passionate about basketball, so I scheduled what I think will be our toughest preseason yet, to see what we’re made of.”

Last weekend at Lowell High’s Cardinal Classic in San Francisco, the Wolves opened with a 55-47 loss to Urban, then beat Terra Nova 49-43, before falling 72-69 to Carlmont.

American Canyon will open the Mark Madsen Invitational at San Ramon Valley at 6:30 p.m. Thursday against Antioch.

“The Madsen tournament is going to be loaded, and the Cordova tournament always has pretty powerful teams,” Wedding said.

On Dec. 19, American Canyon visits Inderkum, last year’s Tri-County Conference co-champion. On Dec. 27, they will play Wood in the first round of the Cordova Christmas Classic.

The Wolves will travel Jan. 3 to St. Patrick-St. Vincent, which won the Division IV state title last year, and two days later host Rodriguez, which tied for second place in the Monticello Empire League last season.

Wedding said last year’s 76-68 loss at No. 5 seed Placer in the first round of the Division III playoffs was an eye-opener.

“Placer was extremely well coached, they had serious size, an awesome crowd, their gym was great, it was a great experience. We were a 12th seed and we battled them and lost only by 8,” he said. “To go up there into a rowdy, loud environment, with a band, it was the basketball experience. Playing teams like that, you learn a lot.”

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Sports Reporter

Andy Wilcox is a sportswriter-photographer for the Napa Valley Register. He's had similar roles in Walnut Creek, Grass Valley, Auburn, Tracy and Patterson. He grew up in Ohio. His wife, Laura, is a pastry chef. He also enjoys playing guitar and piano.