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At LABI, They Believe in Miracles : Basketball: After two years of loss after loss, Latin American Bible Institute team wins a national championship.


LA PUENTE — David Aguilar was hoping for a few victories and maybe a small winning streak to break the monotony of two years of losing. As the athletic director at the Latin American Bible Institute in La Puente, Aguilar had overseen a men's basketball team that stumbled to an 0-41 record in its first seasons of competition against other Christian and Bible colleges.

So when Aguilar replaced himself as coach with Ken Elisaldez, he would have settled for respectability.

Instead, he got a national championship.

Last week at Cincinnati, the LABI Lions won the National Christian College Athletic Assn. Division II championship and improved their record to 30-2.

The March Madness continues this weekend when LABI travels to Oklahoma City to compete for another title in the National Bible College Athletic Assn. tournament.

"It's been a wonderful change," Aguilar said.

The Latin American Bible Institute has been in existence since 1926 and located in La Puente since 1946. The institute, which has 134 students this year, is a non-accredited school that prepares students for careers in the ministry and other help professions. Although it does not award baccalaureate degrees, it does serve as a feeder program for schools such as Azusa Pacific and Southern California College.

Aguilar said he started the basketball program hoping it would contribute to a more diversified student body.

"There are different types of outreaches and sports has been a real key factor in a lot of ways," Aguilar said. "I think it can be a tremendous help in helping these young guys. They are all involved in recreational centers so they have good hearts for helping people."

LABI has no scholarships nor a gym. The team practices and plays its games at a gym in Pico Rivera and has had candy, flower and tamale sales to help finance the program.

"It's a self-sufficient program," Aguilar said. "A lot of our players have paid out of their own pocket. Most athletes would expect something in return, but they have done everything on their own because there is nothing there (financially) for them."

LABI's turnaround began when Aguilar brought in Elisaldez, 31, a supervisor of community services for the city of Pico Rivera who has been coaching at various levels for 13 years.

Elisaldez had guided youth league teams to championships and had worked as an assistant at Cantwell and El Rancho high schools. Aguilar offered him the job without pay. Elisaldez accepted the offer last summer for the opportunity to have the final word on strategy and game decisions.

With Elisaldez on board, LABI soon began attracting players that had played for him as youngsters or during high school.

"I wasn't completely familiar with the level of play when I took the job," said Elisaldez, whose brother, Darin, is one of only two players back from last year's team. "When a team is getting beat by 40 or 50 points, it's hard to judge how good the other guys actually are.

"Once we started, I knew the guys I had were good ballplayers and that I would get a good response from them because I had coached them all before. They were all coachable players and they were serious about going to school and coming to practice."

LABI, which has attempted more than 1,000 three-point shots in 32 games, led the NCCAA in scoring this season, averaging 104 points a game.

John Guerrero, a senior guard who played at Rancho Santiago College for two years and at Cal State San Bernardino last year, was named first-team All-American after averaging 27 points and nine assists.

"The biggest difference between this level and the others I've played at is in the absence of the big men," said Guerrero, who graduated from St. Paul High. "The guard play is as good as any (NCAA) Division III or NAIA school."

LABI's only losses this season have come against Bethany Bible and The Master's College, an National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics school that the Lions also defeated.

LABI went unbeaten through the nine-member Western Athletic Assn., which includes schools throughout California and Arizona, then swept through a playoff regional at Phoenix. The Lions overcame a five-point deficit with 1 minute 30 seconds left to defeat Atlanta Christian for the NCCAA championship at Cincinnati.

"Once we all agreed it was a realistic goal to win a national championship, we just built on it and peaked at the right time," Elisaldez said.

Now it's on to Oklahoma City and a shot at another championship.

Aguilar said the basketball team's success has spurred interest in beginning a women's volleyball program and, possibly, a baseball program in the next few years.

"It's been a great season for the kids on the team and for everyone at the school," Aguilar said. "We're hoping to build on it for the future."

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