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Paul, Hantgin Make These Fast Times at Ventura High

December 24, 1987|STEVE HENSON | Times Staff Writer

Roy Gilmore takes his regular seat and enjoys the game. He likes what he sees.

A sharp outlet pass, a footrace to the other end of the floor, players catching crisp passes without breaking stride. Finally, a layup.

Moments later, the tempo is similar but this time the opposition overcompensates for the break and a player pulls up for a wide-open 17-foot jump shot. Swish.

By the fourth quarter the opposition has been run ragged and the team Gilmore roots for pulls away for another victory.

These are familiar sights for Gilmore, who coached a fast-breaking Westlake High team to the Southern Section 4-A Division final last season before he resigned last summer. But he isn't reminiscing with videotapes, he's watching the 1987-88 edition of Ventura, a team off to a 7-0 start.

"They have experienced players who have grown up together like we did and they get it out and down the floor a lot like we did," said Gilmore, who serves as unofficial assistant to his friend of eight years, Ventura Coach Chris Taylor.

Gilmore attended Ventura High, lives in Ventura and has known several of the players' fathers since high school, so his interest in the team is natural.

But the Cougars object to being called Westlake clones. This fast-paced pack is Taylor-made.

"I can see how we're alike," said senior guard Joe Paul, who watched Westlake in last season's playoffs. "But this team has its own style."

Ventura lacks the dominant big man Westlake had in Dave Heckmann, but Taylor has compensated by ensuring his team is in top physical condition. A preseason program installed by assistant Felix Cortez has helped Ventura outscore its opponents in every second half this season. These are fast times at Ventura High.

"They could go as far as Westlake did last year," Gilmore said. "It takes breaks, though. But if they peak at the right time . . . "

There is no time like the present for Ventura, which has won the Beverly Hills and Thousand Oaks tournaments. The Cougars will worry about gearing up for the playoffs later. They aren't about to give back the tournament trophies because some unwritten rule proclaims that teams playing this well in December may be sorry in March.

"I'm pleased we've done well early," Taylor said. "We've still got plenty of room for improvement, though."

Not to mention more room for trophies in the school display case.

Ventura can pull off a holiday hat trick by winning its own tournament next week. It's a cozy gathering of eight county teams and Ventura is an early favorite.

The Cougars open the tournament against a young Westlake team--a game of interest mostly to Gilmore--and probably will meet cross-town rival Buena for the championship--a game of interest to the entire city of Ventura. Last season, Ventura needed three overtimes to defeat the Bulldogs in the tournament final before a standing-room only crowd.

"People were lined up along all sides of the court," Ventura senior Chris Hantgin recalled. "It was pretty suspenseful."

Suspense is something Ventura and Hantgin have handled easily. Ventura has developed a comeback knack, having rallied from behind to win four times, including the championship games of both tournaments.

Expectations are running high for the postseason tournament, too. Hantgin and Paul, also a senior, have been co-captains since they were sophomores, and want to cap their careers with a great season--one even better than a year ago when Ventura finished 20-6 and advanced to the Southern Section 4-A quarterfinals.

Hantgin, a 6-4 forward who leads the team with an average of 16 points and 8.7 rebounds a game, was most valuable player of the Beverly Hills tournament. Paul, a 6-2 guard who averages 14.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 9 assists, took the same honor in the Thousand Oaks tournament. They are mature and experienced players, whose Ventura roots run deeper than a three-year varsity career.

Ron Paul, Joe's father, played at Ventura, graduating in 1960. Ron's brothers, Doug and Jeff, also played at the school and all three went on to college careers. Chris Hantgin's brother, Nathan, is a junior who starts alongside Paul at guard.

"We get a lot of family support," Paul said. "This is the year we've pointed toward--mine and Chris' senior year."

Taylor, in his third year, has pointed toward this season as well. As a rookie coach, Taylor started sophomores Paul and Hantgin, knowing that in two years they would be seasoned veterans able to enhance the abilities of teammates.

"My first year I decided to build," said Taylor of the 1985-86 Ventura team that was 10-12. "We got off to a 5-2 start in league games but Joe and Chris both got hurt and we were 1-6 the second time through the league."

The team improved markedly last year, honing the running game. This year, sharp-shooting forward Jeff Hereford and 6-6 center Rob Turner cracked the starting lineup. Reserves Cary Brown and Harvey Jones, a transfer from Temple Christian, give the Cougars a strong top seven.

"Joe, Chris and Nate were known quantities," Taylor said. "The development of the supporting cast has been the most gratifying aspect of our early success."

When the fourth quarter rolls around, however, it is Paul and Chris Hantgin who get the call. How long can they keep the Cougars unbeaten? Said Paul: "I hope to go into the playoffs with only one loss."

Said Hantgin: "Getting to the playoffs with two losses is realistic."

Taylor is relieved his players don't expect perfection.

"Joe is so competitive and Chris is so intense that they tend to put too much pressure on themselves," Taylor said.

So far, they've applied the pressure on opposing teams.

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