It's junior college recruiting made easy, the Phil Mathews way. Take over a team with a losing record, break .500 your first year and . . . this is the important part . . . win the state championship your second year.
So, instead of begging tall, talented 18-year-olds to choose his school over the 100 or so other junior colleges in the state, Mathews, the coach at Ventura, finds himself fighting them off.
"It was easier to recruit this year, I must admit," said Mathews, who added 10 freshmen--each with glittering high school credentials--to the Pirates' roster. They join five returning players, including All-American forward Cedric Ceballos, and a few redshirts.
Ventura is certain to have more depth than most teams. Mathews' biggest concern may be finding enough playing time for everyone.
"The kids we have all believe they can play," Mathews said. "They wouldn't have come to Ventura if they didn't have confidence."
Confidence carried last year's team to a record of 31-4, the Western State Conference title with a record of 12-1 and the state title with a 76-72 win over Saddleback. The Pirates avenged each of their four losses, including one to Saddleback, and finished with a 14-game winning streak.
"Toward the end, the team didn't think it could lose," said Mathews, who was an assistant at UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton before taking the Ventura job. The Pirates were 17-10 in 1985-86.
Even with the infusion of fresh talent, repeating as state champion--or even WSC champion--will be difficult. Ceballos is the only returning starter and five members of last year's team, including All-American point guard Leland (Pookey) Wigington, moved on to Division I or II schools. Wigington, the MVP of the state tournament, is at Seton Hall, Chris Duncan is at Sonoma State and Bill Turner, Maurice Pullum and Steve Banales are all at UC Riverside.
"It's not fair to even compare this year's team with last year's," Mathews said. "This is a freshman-oriented team. This team has more skill, but you can't tell yet about its heart and savvy. We have some question marks."
Ceballos, who led the team with an average of 22.2 points and 9.6 rebounds a game last season, is not one of them. The 6-foot, 7-inch, 195-pound forward will more likely be an exclamation point. Although he didn't even start at Dominguez High, Ceballos has evolved into one of the best junior college players in the nation. He is being recruited by USC, Louisville, Washington and Oregon State, according to Mathews.
"Cedric is very fluid," Mathews said. "He's not a pure shooter, but he's a scorer. He drives to the basket well."
Other sophomores in the starting lineup are forward Mark Gray (6-4, 200), who played extensively off the bench last season, and shooting guard Garret Worden (6-4, 170), who is returning from a knee injury.
Mike Robinson (6-3, 193), a freshman from Buena High, is perhaps the team's best outside shooter and will play against teams using a zone defense. Mike McCaslin (6-3, 177), a freshman from Ventura High, is a strong defender and improving offensive player.
Tony Walker and Wally Carter, a pair of 6-0 freshmen, have the task of replacing Wigington at point guard. Walker is starting now but Mathews said Carter will play a lot.
"We will get as much production out of those two as we did out of Pookey," Mathews said.
Three freshmen are vying for playing time inside. Dave Heckmann (6-8, 230) helped Westlake High to the Southern Section 4-A Division final last season and only needs to improve his consistency to be a dominant player. Sean Sullivan (6-4, 225), from Buena High, is a strong rebounder and defender and Kevin Tate (6-3, 178), from Hueneme High, is another offensive threat.
"I can go to the 11th or 12th man and not lose much," Mathews said. "That ought to be an advantage."
The Pirates are 3-0 this season and they have won 17 in a row.
Oxnard is another team dominated by freshmen, although in contrast to Ventura, most of them are not local products. Seven Condor freshmen, in fact, are from Detroit.
"From the Motor City straight to the strawberry fields of Oxnard," said Bruce Furuya, who is in his first year as head coach after serving as an assistant for three years. Last season, the team had a record of 12-18, 3-12 in conference play, under David Carmichael.
Players from Detroit have come to Oxnard for five years, according to Furuya, and they like it so much their friends join them.
"You don't always know what you're getting but who am I to turn away kids?" Furuya said. "It's like checking out a restaurant you heard about. Might be great, might not be so great."
Short of great but certainly serviceable is forward Philip Berry (6-4, 170), perhaps the best of the Detroit seven.
"He's an overachiever, really gets the job done," Furuya said. "And he's a legitimate 6-4. He didn't lie."
Apparently some of Furuya's long-distance recruits were prone to exaggeration. "You know, they say 6-5 and there's no way they're 6-3."