After barely surviving troubled waters for weeks, the Ventura College basketball team must defend its Western State Conference title. And that is to say nothing of defending its state championship.
Will the Pirates be successful? Don't hold your breath. Salmon have an easier time on spawning runs than junior college teams have putting together consecutive titles.
"It's a funny thing about junior college championships," Ventura assistant coach Ned Mircertic said. "The guys who won it don't get an opportunity to defend it."
True enough, because players have only two years of eligibility and championship teams are usually dominated by sophomores. So, Mircertic asks, "Why is everybody treating a win over us as the greatest game of their life?"
Cedric Ceballos, the Pirates' All-American forward, must feel something like the last survivor at Custer's Last Stand. Opposing teams dash out of their locker rooms letting out war whoops as they gear up to defeat the state champions. Ceballos, who wears the banner well as the leading scorer in the conference, looks around and sees himself surrounded by 11 freshmen.
Ventura (13-7) is 2-0 in WSC play, having defeated two of the weaker teams, Oxnard and Santa Barbara. A major test, perhaps the major test, comes tonight when the Pirates play host to Allan Hancock (17-1), which is ranked third in the state. Ventura is unranked.
Despite the Pirates' struggles and inexperience, however, there are those who believe they match up well with Hancock.
Oxnard Coach Bruce Furuya, whose team has been beaten by Ventura and Hancock in the past two weeks, likes Ventura's chances. In fact, the magnanimous Furuya just plain likes to prognosticate.
"OK, here comes the Pete Axthelm analysis," he said. "Ventura has a deeper bench and is getting to a stage where the team is peaking. Hancock has a stronger starting five but if the pace heats up, Ventura could win it in the fourth quarter."
Mircertic thinks along the same lines.
"If it's a fast-paced game, we'll look good," he said. "We're fast. We're disciplined and we have the combinations of people who can guard their scorers."
Phil Mathews, the third-year Ventura coach who took a floundering program and built a state champion, has seen improvement in each painful nonconference loss. He has been able to evaluate each of his freshmen, find the right combinations and mold them along with Ceballos and sixth-man Mark Gray, a sophomore, into a team that may well be better than its record indicates.
"With so many freshmen we needed every one of our nonconference games," Mathews said.
Joining Ceballos in the starting lineup tonight will be center Dave Heckmann, a freshman from Westlake High, and three guards--Tony Walker, Wally Carter and Garrett Worden.
Walker is a freshman and Carter and Worden are sophomores with little experience. Carter is a transfer from Pepperdine. (He never played at the school but was there when he had to forfeit a year of eligibility.) Worden has had leg injuries since graduating from Rio Mesa High two years ago but has emerged as a fine shooting guard.
Impact players off the bench include Gray, who started until being suspended for a game two weeks ago for disciplinary reasons, and freshman guard Mike Robinson, a sharpshooter from Buena High.
"Heckmann and Robinson are the keys in my mind," Furuya said. "Heckmann has to run and play good defense. And if Robinson gets hot, he'll provide the points to pull the defense off of Ceballos."
Gray, who is averaging 12 points a game, was effective as the sixth man on last year's championship team. Mircertic believes he is well-suited for the role.
"It's a great thing for Mark to be coming off the bench," he said. "He gave us a big lift that way last year. He's probably angry about not starting but that's OK. Having him angry is a good thing."
Hancock, which has lost only to Pasadena City in a nonconference game, counters with four players averaging 13 or more points a game.
Warren Hawthorne, a 6-4 sophomore forward, trails only Ceballos in the conference with an average of 25 points a game. Equipped with a smooth jump shot, Hawthorne has made a conference-leading 58% of his field-goal attempts.
Tony Regueira, also a sophomore forward, averages 17 points a game. Sophomore guards Tyrell Cromwell and Trevor Wright each average 13.
Certainly, Hancock's eight sophomores are its strength. Furuya, however, believes that the performance of freshman Mike Gilless, a 6-7 center, might be crucial to the outcome of tonight's game. Gilless scored 17 points in Hancock's 99-90 win over Oxnard last week.
"Gilless has to have a good game for Hancock to win," Furuya said. "Hawthorne and Regueira will get their points. Preventing Gilless and Cromwell from getting theirs is the key."
Oxnard lost to Ventura, 95-66, in a conference opener two weeks ago when sophomore guard Kenny Smith was benched for disciplinary reasons, but the Condors stayed close to Hancock behind 36 points from Smith. "We battled them," Furuya said, "We were down by only four with six minutes left."
Staying close in a losing effort won't be enough for Ventura, which will wear the label of state champion until playing itself out of it.