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Cal High basketball players prepare for college life

WHITTIER — Two California High School basketball players, Damien Martinez and Mateo Martinez (no relation), are headed in two completely different directions for college.

Mateo Martinez is headed just seven miles down the road to Rio Hondo College in Whittier while Damien Martinez is going nearly across the country, 2,431 miles to Penn State University Beaver campus in Monaca, Pennsylvania.

“It feels amazing to get that opportunity,” Damien said. “Not many get that chance to move on to the next level.”

Damien also had interest from Barry University in Miami, Florida.

But the common denominator between the two is continuing to play their childhood game at the next level.

Damien Martinez, 18, never even heard of PSU Beaver a year ago and Mateo, 18, had come off of a year without playing the game in his junior year due to an earlier injury.

“It’s amazing for them to move on and get a chance to extend their careers,” third-year Cal coach Joel Simonds said. “It’s extremely important to the younger guys to see that they can still play after high school. It’s a great thing for them to see.”

Damien, who is a two-year varsity player, was named to the All-Del Rio League First team this past season and the second team in his junior year.

“He put his stuff out there for colleges to see and now he’s excited about the opportunity,” Simonds added. Damien was supposed to take his visit to the campus in mid-March but that opportunity was lost because of the pandemic. However, the point guard just signed last week.

“It’s exciting for me to see him grow up,” Simonds said. “He’s been playing since he was three and weather you’ve heard of PSU Beaver or not, you have to become a fan.

“I’ll be trying to keep up on him, with the internet and all, and just being a fan of Penn State Beaver.”

The university is one of 19 campuses in the Penn State University system. They play in the Penn State University Athletic Conference (PSUAC) and are a member conference of the United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA). It is a national organization for the intercollegiate athletic programs of 78 of mostly small colleges, community colleges and junior colleges across the United States.

Penn State Beaver currently has 720 students.

“Damien is a leader with a quiet personality and leads through example,” Simonds said. Being in a small environment will be good for his personality to grow.”

Mateo, who is 6 ft. 3 in. and plays forward, is headed to Rio Hondo and will have the chance to show his game.

“Playing two years of college basketball and he will have an opportunity if he does well,” said Simonds of Mateo playing at the community college level and possibly moving on. “He didn’t play as a junior and came back in the summer and worked back into basketball shape.”

Mateo had injured his back in junior high and the injury came back after his sophomore year.

“He rehabbed from October to about April of last year,” Simonds said. “If we would have had him, we would have had a chance at a league title.”

Mateo was named to the All-Del Rio League second team this last season.

“My back didn’t get bad until the summer before my junior year when I was playing with the varsity. It usually takes three months, but it took me seven months,” said Mateo of his recuperation. “It makes me happy to put in the work and get the opportunity to play.”

Mateo had to endure therapy three times a day during that stretch.



California High School senior basketball players, Damien Martinez, left, and Mateo Martinez will be playing basketball in college. (Photo by Keith Durflinger)


Mateo was destined to go to Rio, as he grew up around the school with his mom (Sally Willsey), working in the Roadrunner system at one of the off-site campuses.

“It’s all very competitive on the court in junior college,” Mateo said. “I always tried to develop my game and coach wanted me to block shots and clean up the glass. I spent last summer working on my post game.

“I was glad to play this year and I created a lot of bonds with my teammates.”

Damien wanted to make sure the underclassmen would have a chance to play at the next level.

“It doesn’t mean that we’re the only ones – you can have that opportunity too.”

Mateo also commented on both of their (Mateo and Damien) play on the court.

“We weren’t always the most vocal on the court and coach (assistant coach Brian Daydon) said to me, ‘come on Mateo, speak up.’

“It was fun to play with Damien and he is something on the court – amazing.”

On Covid-19, Mateo said: “It was definitely hard and I miss my friends. Hopefully we can have a graduation in July.”

Damien, who is the first in his family to go away to college, also realized he needs to speak up more. “I’m working on my vocal skills.”

In addition, he also knew of the weather change that occurs back east: “I’m a winter guy and just enjoy the cold weather.”

Damien, a point guard, was supposed to go for his college tour, but it fell on the day of the Cal-La Serna game.

“In my senior year, I didn’t want to miss the La Serna game,” he said. “I saw the college on an online tour and it was bigger than I thought it’d be.”

He is due to leave in August and will live in the dorms.

“Oh my god, I’m excited to go and want to go there now.”

Damien said of coach Simonds: “He was always very enthusiastic and was always getting us motivated.”

Damien on his teammate Mateo: “After his injury he came back and helped us be stronger and really needed a ‘big’ and helped us in the paint.”

Coach Simonds reflected on how lucky his team was able to finish its season and awards banquet before the pandemic shut things down.

“Our banquet was on Wednesday, March 11, and two days later school was closed,” he said. “For us to finish the season and have a banquet, the basketball team got to say goodbye.”

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