It's one thing for a high school basketball coach to be humble in defeat. It's quite another for him actually to praise an opponent.
But with the scoring tear Buena High point guard Jeff Oliver has been on this season, coaches are saying a lot of things they normally would keep to themselves.
"We did everything we could to stop him from scoring," San Marcos Coach Jeff Lavender said. "We fouled him, pressured him and double-teamed him. But he just kept scoring. He's just a great pure shooter who's very competitive. He's a super player."
Oliver, a 6-foot senior, went wild against San Marcos in a Channel League game Jan. 12, scoring 46 points in an 89-86 victory. The league-leading Royals, noted for their defense, have not allowed a player other than Oliver to score more than 20 points in a game this season.
"It was an unusual letdown for us," Lavender said. "I bet he didn't miss three shots all night."
The San Marcos coach is busy coming up with new ways to stop Oliver. The Royals play at Buena on Friday night with first place in the league on the line. Prior to Wednesday's action, San Marcos was 8-2 and Buena and Santa Barbara were second at 7-3.
It's no surprise Oliver is making an impact this season; he has excelled as a starter for the Bulldogs since he was a sophomore. But the degree of that impact is surprising.
Oliver started the season impressively, scoring 123 points in three games during the Loyola tournament last month. He opened the tournament by scoring 29 points against Santa Ana, added 42 against St. Paul, and topped that with 52 in a 118-96 loss to Loyola in the championship game. He shattered the school's single-game scoring record of 41 set by Don Fly in 1961.
Loyola defeated Buena again two weeks ago in a nonleague match-up, but not before Oliver had burned the Cubs for 36 points.
For the season, Oliver is averaging 28 points and seven assists a game, placing him among the statistical leaders in those categories in Ventura County. His season low is 13 points against Beverly Hills when he missed half the game with the flu.
"It sure is great to score points and get into the records books," said Oliver, who will attend Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in the fall. "But you can't dwell on the big games all season and keep referring back to them. If you do that you don't concentrate on what's ahead and that can really hurt the team."
Entering Monday's home game against Oxnard, Buena had been in a bit of a slump. The Bulldogs had dropped three games in a row and were in jeopardy of dropping out of the playoff race. So the team looked to Oliver, and he delivered by scoring 40 points in a 107-84 win.
"Jeff is one of the fiercest competitors I've ever known," said Buena Coach Glenn Hannah, who in nine years never had a three-year starter until Oliver. "He puts a lot of pressure on himself to do well. That usually isn't a problem because he has a great knowledge of this game. He makes the necessary adjustments on the court when needed. He's also just a great shot."
Observers may find it odd that a player with a deadly outside shot would be put at point guard, but it is at that position Oliver said he is most comfortable. Playing at off-guard as a sophomore to make the starting lineup, he averaged 15 points.
But nobody was happier than Oliver when he returned to point guard last year. Back in his familiar position, he averaged 19 points and seven assists in helping lead the Bulldogs to the semifinals of the Southern Section 5-A Division semifinals. (They lost to Capistrano Valley, 84-71).
Oliver is the floor general in Buena's fast-break offense. He has the ability to direct the flow, find the necessary openings, and still have time to score.
"I'm doing a lot of other things on the court besides scoring," Oliver said. "And it makes me mad sometimes, because mostly the only thing people see is how many points you scored. Because I've had a few games where I scored a lot of points, when I don't produce the same numbers my friends at school ask me if anything is wrong. You can't always explain to them that scoring isn't everything."
But for Buena, Oliver's big numbers have been important. Because the team returned only two varsity players this season--the other is center Darren Shearer--someone had to step in and take charge.
"The past two years, Jeff really just got to concentrate on his scoring," Hannah said. "This season he's had to do a lot more. He's had to be a team leader among other things. There's certainly a lot more pressure on him."
The pressure has been so great at times that the competitive Oliver often finds himself racking his brain for days over mistakes in games. In Saturday's 71-65 loss to Santa Barbara, Oliver scored 25 points but committed several turnovers. Hannah said Oliver took the defeat personally.