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Hoops and Hollers : Loyal Fans of Ventura Pirates Follow Their Favorites to State Competition


Ike Holmes and Fran Ikezoye, a pair of retirees in Camarillo, are packing their bags today for a trip stoked with hoop dreams.

Doing the same in Ventura are Penny Eskew and her fellow angels in the bleachers, making sure to include their good-luck pins that they swear have empowered the Ventura College basketball team to victories in all but one of its 35 games this season.

Across town in Ventura, Louis Bryant, the loudest of the lot, is saving his voice and packing plenty of throat lozenges.

In cars, rooter buses and even motor homes, the Pirate Parade is forming on the Ventura Freeway today as Ventura College basketball fans, a diverse group with a growing reputation for spirit, head to Orange County for the state junior college basketball championships.

Ventura, California's top-ranked team, needs just three more victories to claim the second state title in the 10-year reign of Coach Philip Mathews. The Pirates, who have advanced to the championship game two years in a row, open play in the state Final Eight tournament today at 8 p.m. against Fresno City College in the Bren Events Center at UC Irvine.

The team expects to showcase its frenetic brand of fast-break basketball at the tournament, following its motto: "We play hard." But Mathews' program has won respect for its rigorous attention to the academic success of its players.

His team, consisting predominantly of black players, many from far-flung parts of the country, has galvanized the laid-back beach-town residents into an Orange and Black army of basketball fanatics.

Team and town have bonded in a remarkable interaction that defies boundaries of race, culture, gender and age. There seems to be something for everybody in the Pirate program: As grade-school students scamper under the bleachers, basketball purists come to games to be dazzled by the Pirates' court wizardry. Middle-aged women have virtually adopted out-of-town players as surrogate sons. Coach Mathews is revered by some members of the black community as the community's ultimate role model.

Says Mathews: "Community involvement was always part of the blueprint."


Chuck Eskew, who like many fans never attended Ventura College, is chairman of the Ventura County Sports Hall of Fame and has been the team's public address announcer for the past four seasons. At a recent home game, he said he was struck by the diversity of the crowd as it filed into the gym.

"There were all nationalities and races and all the older people with their VC hats and T-shirts, and I bet very few of them were Ventura alumni," he said. "The vastness of the reach of this program just hit me."

Holmes, a 50-year-old retired telephone company manager, personifies the loyalty to Mathews' program. Holmes' son, Brian, played for Mathews from 1992-94. But Holmes continues to attend every game and this season became president of the 150-member booster club.

"I'm an ardent fan and I like basketball, but I look at the job Phil is doing as something greater than basketball," he said. "I'm a black male and I know how much he is doing for the young men. The winning record helps, but as long as he graduates 95% of his players, I'm there."

The Mathews mantra is repeated all over town: Basketball success without academic success is meaningless. And Mathews has mastered both ends of the equation.

The charismatic and fiery 44-year-old son of an Air Force warrant officer has transformed Ventura from a stumbling, nondescript program into a state power.

Mathews arrived at Ventura College a decade ago, after the school had endured nine consecutive losing seasons. Since then, Ventura has won 84% of its games, claimed the state title in 1987 and launched the career of Cedric Ceballos, now with the Lakers. The team has reached the Final Eight tournament each of the past four seasons. Remarkably, in the past five seasons, Ventura has won 170 games and lost only 16.

Equally impressive has been the team's academic performance. Despite recruiting many athletes with poor academic records, Mathews has seen 59 of 64 players--including all 11 sophomores last year--either graduate or transfer to four-year schools.

Fans love to hoot and holler when Ventura sinks a three-pointer or completes a fast break with a slam dunk. But most of them also have deep respect for the emphasis on academics. It has become part of the Mathews mystique.

Said Ikezoye, a 75-year-old retiree who worked with abused children for the county: "I'm really impressed with Phil and his emphasis on education. Kids need that and he's providing it."

Gerri Cantu works in the financial aid office at the college and was selected by Mathews to serve as a mentor for players, offering advice and tutoring. Damian Cantrell, a 6-foot-6 freshman from Oxnard, has become part of the Cantu family, frequently visiting the Santa Paula home of Robert, Gerri and their two daughters, ages 14 and 10.

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