Left Winston Hardson Jr from the St. Monicas high school boys varsity basketball team goes for layup around Julio Maldonado from the South Gate High School varsity basketball team at St. Monica's highschool on Wednesday December 2nd as St. Monica's and south gate faced off in one of the games during in third round of the St. Monica's classic round robin basketball tournament in which St. Monica would win 55-47

Seven games into the season, St. Monica Catholic boys basketball coach Miguel Villegas believed his team should only have one loss.

It had four.

That’s because the Mariners came up agonizingly short in several competitive preseason games, dropping one contest by two points, then falling by four points three days later, then succumbing by three points four days after that.

But the narrow defeats have also convinced Villegas that St. Monica can have a successful season despite its overall youth and lack of experience, which have materialized in the form of small errors with dramatic cumulative effects.

“We’ve got to live with those mistakes right now because I know it’ll pay dividends when league comes,” the coach said. “Once we clean up all those mistakes, we’ll be fine.”

The extent to which the Mariners can cut down on unforced errors will likely affect how the program fares in its second year with Villegas at the helm. Last year, the squad went 15-14 overall and 7-3 in the Camino Real League before falling to San Gabriel Academy in the second round of the Division 4A section playoffs.

This season’s roster is spearheaded by returning seniors Nick Allegrette, Derek Riley and Caleb Raymond. Allegrette, who was averaging about 18 points per game through seven games, has been playing “tremendously,” Villegas said.

St. Monica (4-5) also figures to get key contributions from sophomore Riel Fisher and freshman John Clausell, two of the five underclassmen on the team. Villegas is busy bringing them up to speed.

“The youth is getting to know what’s expected,” he said. “In the preseason they’re seeing a lot of minutes so, by the time league rolls around, they’re used to seeing different kinds of defenses and understanding what we’re running and what I expect from them.”

The Mariners will likely need their young players’ help to stay competitive in the Camino Real League, which features Pasadena-La Salle as well as Long Beach-St. Anthony and La Puente-Bishop Amat. Villegas said the team’s prospects also hinge in part on the eligibility status of senior Kenny Redfield Jr.

“If we could win a league championship, that would be great,” he said. “The league itself is pretty tough, so winning a league title would mean a lot.”

Even with a potentially potent combination of frontcourt size and backcourt speed, St. Monica has struggled to finish close games. After defeating Crossroads in its season opener, it lost by two points to Lake Balboa-Birmingham. It then fell 51-47 to Los Angeles-University in its home tournament Dec. 3 and dropped a 72-69 decision against Hollywood-Bernstein in the University tournament four days later.

Minor mistakes made the difference for the Mariners in those three frustrating setbacks, Villegas said.

“It’s the little stuff: jump stops, stepping through with a pass, ball-faking,” he said. “These guys were so dominant at the middle school level, and maybe they were thinking it would be the same [in high school]. But it does change a lot. It’s knowing where to be, how to release pressure, not ball-watching, being more assertive, talking a lot more. It’s all the little things. If we clean up half those mistakes, we can be pretty scary.”

jeff@www.smdp.com