The562’s coverage of Long Beach Poly is sponsored by Bryson Financial.
The Long Beach Poly basketball team has more wins than any other high school team in California history, and as many NBA and NCAA alums as well. They had the longest league championship streak in Moore League history and are one of the few programs in the state who carry massively high expectations into every season. Last year the Jackrabbits went 12-15 overall and saw their 13-year league title streak snapped by Jordan, as Poly finished in a three-way tie for second place at 8-4 in league.
Alums weren’t happy, nor were fans or families. Among the disgruntled alums? Head coach Shelton Diggs, who played for legendary Poly basketball coach Ron Palmer and who’s been the steward of the Jackrabbit legacy for the last decade.
“I did a horrible job coaching, I didn’t do a good job putting the guys in the right positions they needed to be in for that specific group,” said Diggs. “All offseason we’ve been working to change things.”
Diggs’ challenge last year was a varsity team with essentially one returner, top recruit Jovani Ruff, who was asked to lead an experienced team while just being a sophomore himself. It led to a year of frustration, and to opposing coaches and fans saying they hadn’t seen a Poly team struggle like that maybe ever.
While Diggs put the blame for Poly’s struggles on himself, their star player disagreed. Ruff, a junior now, said he needed to grow up faster than he did last season.
“I really take the blame for that,” he said. “Personally I felt like I was too complacent. We got punched in the mouth. We all have a chip on our shoulder this year and I feel like we really needed that humbling experience.”
Regardless of Poly’s coach and top player both taking responsibility for last season, one thing is very clear after seeing Poly’s results over the Summer and Fall: the Jackrabbits are a lot better this year, with most Moore League coaches expecting them to retake the league crown.
Ruff has continued to develop and is an even more confident scorer , and his growth in leadership and on the defensive end have been evident as well. It’s why he’s a top-tier recruit with offers from UCLA, Kansas, and more, and has drawn college coaches from across the country to Poly’s practices.
“For a great scorer he’s also willing to pass it, he’s very very unselfish,” said Diggs.
Ruff posted over the offseason that he was planning on transferring to a prep school, before ultimately thinking it over and deciding to stay at Poly and try to lead the Jackrabbits to a championship.
“I said I was transferring really because I was frustrated,” he said. “Frustrated with how the season ended. But Poly’s home for me, I realized it’s home for real. I love all my coaches and teammates.”
Ruff said he wants to go down as one of Poly’s all-time greats, and said he realized he couldn’t do that leaving the program after his sophomore year, with the league title in Jordan’s hands.
“This is my home, I’m from Long Beach, I get a lot of love from the older players who came before me, and they told me I have a chance to be special,” he said. “I want to come back in 10-15 years and be remembered as one of those guys.”
He said Poly alums like Jordan Bell were in his ear about transferring.
“We want to bring a championship back to Poly, and we want to take back what’s ours in the Moore League,” he said.
The good news for Poly and Ruff is that ESPN’s 20th ranked junior isn’t the only weapon Poly has this year–far from it. Juniors Giovanni Ofoegbu and Austin Unegbo bring scoring, athleticism, and defensive grit to the Jackrabbits, while 6-8 sophomore Jonas Oware gives them a post presence. The other guard spot has been filled by senior Mason Myers, a rare senior on this young team–but sophomore Nana Ofoegbu is instant offense and spark for Poly off the bench.
What separates this Poly team aside from their defense and work ethic, is their depth. They’ve got talent across every class, with almost all sophomores and juniors starting. Freshman Jett Mattox is a highly-regarded incoming player who was the top middle school player in the LBUSD last year, and who will be available later this season after he recovers from a broken foot. Freshman Isaac Hagans has already seen playing time this year, and Enzo Haramis is another frosh on varsity with a bright future. Diggs compares Mattox and Hagans to Zafir Williams and Myles Johnson, two All-CIF standouts and college stars who played for them.
Diggs said he likes the way his team competes, and their work ethic.
“We’ve got to go get our title back,” said Diggs. “What happened last year didn’t bother some of the kids on that team–this group? It bothers them. They don’t like to lose. This is a group that does what they need to win, that cares about winning. They care about tradition. They’re all homegrown, not one transfer, all Long Beach kids who’ve been here since their freshman year.”
Ruff said this year isn’t about fans or media or proving people wrong–it’s about the Poly players’ commitment to each other.
“It’s just a pride thing,” he said. “We sat down as players and were really like, ‘What are we going to let these other teams do to Poly?’ We want our lick back.”