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It's Getting Late for Ventura's Tate : Center Leads Quest for State Title After Having Watched Pirates Fall Short Twice


VENTURA — As Whitney Houston's taped rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" reverberates through the packed Ventura College gym, Michael Tate breaks from the ranks shortly before the last words ring out and walks past every teammate, slapping and shaking hands.

Neither Tate nor his teammates exchange anything more during the pregame ritual, probably because nothing needs to be said.

The look of determination on Tate's face speaks volumes.

"He is one of our leaders," said Philip Mathews, the Ventura coach. "That intensity is one of the things that impressed me when I saw him play in high school."

It also has made him a favorite with the capacity crowds at Ventura home games, from those who delight in rocking the place after one of his thunderous dunks to the kids who hover near him after games, asking for autographs.

In a town where the Pirate players are almost cult figures, Tate is dutifully revered.

At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds with a powerfully built body, the sophomore center epitomizes the team's motto of "We Play Hard." He hustles down the floor, sometimes posting low and blowing around a defender with a quick first step for an easy layup or a jam, and always crashing the boards with his outstanding leaping ability and power.

Tate used his muscle and 40-inch vertical leap to average 8.7 rebounds during the regular season and grabbed 44 rebounds in three Southern California regional games. He helped the Pirates advance to the eight-team state tournament that starts tonight and concludes Saturday at the UC Irvine Bren Events Center.

Ventura (34-2), ranked No. 1 in the state, will play a first-round game against Cosumnes River (25-9) tonight at 8.

Without Tate, the Pirates might not have made it this far.

In a hard-fought 83-76 victory over Imperial Valley on Saturday that clinched a berth in the final eight, Tate had 17 rebounds. He had 13 in a 95-66 stomping of Rancho Santiago in the second round and 14 and four blocked shots in a 92-78 win over Harbor in the first round.

"He is probably the second strongest guy on the team behind (forward) Brandon (Jessie)," Mathews said.

For Tate, who averaged 10.7 points during the regular season, making sure the Pirates reached the state tournament was imperative after watching the team stumble when it counted the most the previous two seasons.

After leading Fremont High to the state Division I final his senior season in 1990-91, Tate enrolled at Ventura, attracted by the program Mathews had built and by the serene community.

"I had to get away from the area I grew up in," Tate said. "It was getting kind of rough. There was never any pressure for me to join a gang, but there were gangs from other areas that kept coming into our neighborhood. . . . I remember when I was in the ninth grade and a bunch of guys confronted me one day as I was walking home from school. They wanted to start something but I put my feet in motion."

In his first season at Ventura, the Pirates conked out in the state semifinals. He redshirted last season and watched from the bench as the Pirates were upset by Columbia, 97-88, in the state final at the University of San Francisco. Ventura entered with a 37-1 record but left disappointed for the second consecutive season.

"Being there on the bench the whole season was hard," Tate said. "It came down to that last game and I just kept my fingers crossed. I wanted the guys to win it so much but I also wanted to be a part of it. I even cried after the game."

Tate sat out the season because Mathews wanted him to concentrate on accumulating units that would transfer to a four-year school. Besides, the Pirates were loaded with Jessie, three-point specialist Calvin Curry (now at Oklahoma) and Mike King (Cal State Sacramento) in the front line and freshman point guard Joey Ramirez and Stephane Brown (Oregon State) in the backcourt.

"It's all paying off now," Tate said. "I'm graduating in May. I thank (Mathews) for redshirting me one year."

Soon after this season started, however, Tate found himself on the sideline again. A stress fracture of the right ankle, suffered in a tournament game at Moorpark College in early December, forced him out. He returned about a month later, ahead of schedule, and participated in Ventura's school-record 29 consecutive victories.

Since Cuesta snapped the streak with a 72-71 victory at Ventura on Feb. 9, the Pirates have won five in a row and Tate is hoping the string stretches to eight with three more victories in the state tournament. He has played on or seen the last three Ventura teams and believes that this unit could be the one that finally gives the Pirates their second state title and first since 1987.

"My first season, people really didn't expect us to go as far as we did," he said. "I was the tallest guy in the lineup and we didn't have the shooters we had last year. But we proved them wrong. I think we have a real good chance of winning if everyone stays focused. We have a lot of determination. We just need to stay focused."

Nobody will have to remind Tate of that at game time tonight. He'll be ready long before the national anthem is over.

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