When Ventura College women's basketball Coach George Valenzuela blows the first whistle at practice each weekday morning, most of his players quickly wipe the sleep out of their eyes.
In fact, Valenzuela usually cracks a few yawns himself as he gets his vocal cords in yelling-drill form.
It's not easy to start practice at 6 a.m., but playing junior college women's basketball requires sacrifices.
At least Ventura gets to practice in its own gymnasium. At Oxnard College, the women's team is forced to practice and play all of its home games at Santa Clara High because the college has no indoor basketball court.
The Oxnard women, however, have the luxury of practicing at 7 p.m. "But that's only when there's no conflict with any of the high school teams," Coach Dan Campbell said.
Despite the ongoing inconveniences, players and coaches of both teams insist they wouldn't have it any other way.
"The one factor we all have in common is that we've been part of a winning program in the past and want to continue that," said Valenzuela, a former girls' basketball coach at Rio Mesa High who still teaches there. "A lot of the girls hope this will be a steppingstone to a four-year program."
The road to a university is a difficult jaunt, especially for the players at Ventura and Oxnard. Athletes must shuffle odd practice schedules with classes and part-time jobs.
Games are held as far as Bakersfield and San Diego, which adds to the time investment.
There are no scholarships, and \o7 every\f7 member of both teams holds down a job to help cover expenses. To maintain eligibility, athletes must take at least 12 hours a semester and maintain a 'C' average.
Ventura players start their days with practice, attend classes in the morning and work in the afternoon. Evenings are reserved for studying. With games on Wednesdays and Saturdays, free time is at a premium.
The only difference for Oxnard's players is that practice is at night. They must use the early morning hours for extra study time.
The coaches' schedules are typical of the hardships experienced on the junior college level. Valenzuela, a single parent, has beaten a path between Ventura and Rio Mesa High.
Oxnard's Campbell starts his days at 7 a.m. at his job with the Ventura County Sheriff's Department. He usually gets home at 10 or 11 p.m.
"Now you have to put more effort into fitting everyone into practice," said Campbell, a former girls' coach at Camarillo High. "There are a lot of schedules to coordinate. I also have to coordinate with Santa Clara's teams, so there is a lot to juggle. If there is a conflict, we're always low on the totem pole.
"But getting motivated is never a problem. The thrill of playing basketball on a higher level is what inspires all of us. Intrinsically, the people on our team are competitive. If we weren't going out for basketball, it would be another sport. We have to be competing.
"But certainly with the sacrifices that must be made, it takes a special type of person."
The bottom line is competing, with the slim hope of landing a scholarship to a major college. Neither Valenzuela or Campbell has sent a player beyond the junior college ranks since they took over their respective programs three years ago. But that may be changing.
Ventura is battling for the Western State Conference championship this season, thanks in part to the play of 6-foot-3 center Chris Royers.
Royers, a sophomore, is averaging 16 points and 20 rebounds a game. She set a school record of 29 rebounds in a game earlier this season.
Her play and size have attracted interest from the University of Oklahoma, Long Beach State and the University of San Francisco, among others.
The attention is amazing, considering Royers played sparingly while she attended Buena High.
"Everyone in high school said that I was just a big girl who was uncoordinated," Royers said. "But I've matured and gotten a lot stronger at Ventura. I have a lot more confidence now. I'm no longer a bench warmer."
Royers recently wrecked her car, so she must walk or ride her bicycle to practice two miles each morning.
But she said she loves being on the court just after dawn.
Teammate Ytteb Bowls lives in Oxnard, so she must allow extra traveling time to make the early morning workouts.
"I love waking up that early," said Bowls, a 5-9 freshman forward from Channel Islands High. "It gets you energized for the rest of the day."
Bowls had scholarship offers to the University of Delaware and Southwest Texas, but decided to attend a junior college and see if she could attract an offer closer to home.
She should attract plenty of offers if she plays like she did in last week's 82-69 upset win over Moorpark, when she scored a season-high 16 points.
Oxnard sophomore Tami Cleaver will probably end her basketball career at the end of the season, but she said the two extra years have been well worth the effort.
She feels this way despite the fact that the Condors are 0-5 in the conference and 5-13 overall.
"It was my own ambition to keep playing and to stay in shape," said Cleaver, who attended Oxnard High. "It's been a sacrifice, especially because I have really dedicated myself to the team.
"But it's a sacrifice I've enjoyed. I didn't mind it a bit."