The Trinity League has a lot to brag about when it comes to athletic superiority, but there’s no denying which program is the crown jewel.
The Mater Dei boys’ basketball team has been soaring above the rest ever since winning its first Southern Section title in 1983. The Monarchs added four more section championships in the 80s, eight in the 90s and 13 of 15 since 2000. They also won 11 state championships in those 31 years, including four in a row heading into this season.
Mater Dei went 35-0 last season and finished No. 1 in the nation in several publications, setting the bar about as high as it goes for this year’s group.
Rex Pflueger, a senior shooting guard for the Monarchs who has committed to play for Notre Dame, is aiming for a repeat performance .
“My goal is just not to lose another game,” he says. “I want to end the season on a win, and that means you ultimately win state. Those are my two goals right now.”
The Monarchs should be in good hands with the 6-foor-6 Pflueger, who played his first two seasons at JSerra before transferring to Mater Dei, and 6-10 junior forward M.J. Cage, who was second on the team in scoring last season (14.9) and the top rebounder (10.6) and shot blocker (3.6).
Finishing as the top rebounder should come as no surprise for Cage, whose father, Michael Cage, played 15 seasons in the NBA and led the league in rebounding as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers in 1988.
But where the younger Cage veers away from his father’s path is more refined ball handling and perimeter shooting skills. The elder cage still holds the NBA record for the most 3-point shots in a career (25) without making at least one.
“I want to bring the ball up and take people off the dribble,” M.J. Cage says of his personal goals this season.
Pflueger, who was third on the team in scoring last season with 12 points a game and tops in assists (4.5), said he expects Cage to dominate this season, “not only getting double-doubles every game, but getting high double-doubles, like 20 and 15.”
Pflueger and Cage figure to torture teams with their pick-and-roll abilities.
“He’s so versatile,” Pflueger says of Cage. “He can roll to the hoop and dunk on someone or he can step out and shoot the 3.”
Cage said he credits his agility and footwork to years of playing soccer as a youngster. He didn’t get involved in organized basketball until the fifth grade. His father, who currently works as a color analyst for the Oklahoma City Thunder broadcast team, has been instrumental in getting M.J. to adopt the never-give-up attitude.
After all, it was the elder Cage who won the rebounding title when he was the shortest starting center in the NBA at 6-9, and earned that distinction by grabbing 30 rebounds in the final game of the regular season, when he needed 28 to win the title.
Pflueger has seen Cage’s maturation up close and expects to see a lot more.
“He’s definitely got a lot bigger, even from freshman to sophomore to junior,” he said. “He’s getting longer, more athletic and it seems like he’s always working on his game.”