FRESNO — The College of the Canyons basketball team has won a lot more games than publicity this season.
And that's because of the way the Cougars go about winning: They are workmanlike but not spectacular, steady but not flashy.
While the community may not be particularly enthused about Canyons, however, coach Lee Smelser is.
In his 16th year at the Valencia school, Smelser takes special pride in what he calls his best and hardest-working team.
"This is a blue-collar bunch," Smelser said. "We really have a great bunch of kids. They may not be the most talented team around, but they work real hard. They're great to be around."
The Mountain Valley Conference champion Cougars (22-6) open play in the California Community College Tournament this morning against Golden Gate Conference runner-up San Jose City (25-7) at 10:45 in Fresno's Selland Arena. It is the first time Canyons has qualified for the state tournament since 1978.
One of Canyons' strengths is its ability to win close games. Five times in conference alone, the Cougars won games by one or two points.
"You need luck to win those close ones--and good coaching," Smelser said, laughing. "Actually, we won too many tight ones for it to be luck. We have a lot of discipline and looked for good shots, and that's how we won them."
Canyons has other strengths, too. The Cougars play tough man-to-man and zone defenses and shoot accurately within the constraints of their deliberate pattern offense.
As a team, the Cougars are shooting better than 50% from the floor and have four starters averaging in double figures.
Forward Pete Coeler, a 6-foot, 4-inch sophomore, is averaging 15.5 points per game, while 6-8 sophomore center Don White averages 14 a game, 6-0 freshman guard James Mixon averages 12 and 6-7 forward Karl Tompkins 10.5. Tompkins is Canyons' leading rebounder with a 7.5-per-game average, while White averages 7 per game.
Sophomore guard Deron White (no relation to Don) is third in the state in assists with an average of 9.6 per game, and his play is vital to the Cougars' success.
"We like to be patient and wait for an open shot," Smelser said. "We like to try and get the ball inside, and if there's nothing there, bring it back out and take a shot on the perimeter."
So, while Smelser admits there are more talented schools competing in the 16-team, four-day tournament, he is conceding nothing. Canyons, the third-seeded team from Southern California, has used hard work to beat strong teams all season, and Smelser seems optimistic that the trend will continue this weekend at Fresno.
"The chemistry and makeup of this team is good," Smelser said. "I think we are capable of going a long way."
Glendale College (20-11), which plays Oroville's Butte College (25-3) in another first-round State tournament game this afternoon at 12:30, began the season unimpressively. Glendale got off to an 2-7 start, and the only place they looked like they were headed was the bottom of the Inland Valley Conference standings.
But the Vaqueros, who have 11 freshmen on their 13-man roster, ended up winning 18 of their remaining 22 games to tie with Riverside City for the conference title and win a berth in the State regional playoffs.
The Vaqueros then earned a berth in the state tournament by beating L.A. Valley in overtime last Friday, 87-82, in a regional playoff. That victory served as revenge for Glendale, which had lost to the Monarchs twice during the regular season.
The Vaqueros' leading scorer is 6-5 freshman forward John Hoffman, who is averaging 14.8 points per game, while 6-8 sophomore center Toros Yetenekian is averaging 14.
Bill Carr, a 6-2 sophomore guard, is the team's playmaker and also one of the best free-throw shooters in the state. On the season, Carr has made nearly 90% of his free throws and at one stretch made 49 straight.
Coach Brian Beauchemin's teams have won at least 20 games in five of his six seasons at Glendale, but this is the first time the Vaqueros have gone to the state tournament during his tenure.
State Tournament Notes
College of the Canyons and Glendale are the only San Fernando Valley-area schools in the state tournament. . . .
Other first-round games today: Sacramento City (24-8) vs. Grossmont (24-7) at 9 a.m., Ohlone (20-10) vs. El Camino (29-1) at 2:15, Long Beach City (28-6) vs. City College of San Francisco (25-4) at 4 p.m., Skyline (26-2) vs. Taft (29-5) at 6 p.m., Fresno City (26-9) vs. Mt. San Antonio (27-4) at 7:45 and Riverside City (24-9) vs. San Joaquin Delta (26-4) at 9:30. . . .
El Camino is the top-seeded team from Southern California, while defending champion San Joaquin Delta is the top-seeded team from Northern California.