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Not So Fast, Coach : Children, Health Concerns Gave Antelope Valley's Newton Chelette Pause and Now He's Slowing Tempo : JUST PREPS / A page dedicated to high school athletes, their families and coaches--and to those who follow high school sports.

February 01, 1996|FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LANCASTER — A pizza-delivery man stands by the bleachers at the Antelope Valley College gym, one hand clutching the bill and the other curled into a fist that is resting on his hip.

He has been waiting for only a few minutes, but his body language says he's eager to seal the deal.

Newton Chelette, the fellow with the checkbook, is busy.

The Antelope Valley men's basketball coach is in the middle of a walk-through session with his team, going over strategy for that night's opponent.

"If they pass the ball in there, you have to slide down and help out," Chelette reminds one of his forwards.

The players, wearing street clothes, shuffle from one spot to the next, slowly dissecting some of the offensive setups they expect to face in the game. They do it enough that the pizza guy knows he has kissed goodbye the tips on at least a few more deliveries.

Finally, Chelette strolls over and pays the man, who darts from the place as the players pounce on the seven boxes filled with their pregame meal.

Chelette grabs a slice and a can of soda and downs them casually.

And why not? After years in the coaching rat race, some of them at troubled four-year programs, and after suffering chest pains that sidelined him briefly last season, he has altered his tempo.

Not that Chelette, who turned 46 on Wednesday, is looking for a reclining chair. Far from it. He coaches, teaches, officiates and is a single parent raising three children.

It's just that Chelette is no longer in a hurry. He is exactly where he wants to be.

*

This high-desert, working-class town of no particular distinction is not where Chelette expected to settle as a coach. Or find happiness.

When he took over at Antelope Valley in 1989, the Marauders were smarting from two disastrous seasons. Chelette, then interim coach at Santa Barbara City, saw an opportunity to mend the Marauders and perhaps position himself for a major college job.

He had been head coach at Southeastern Louisiana for three seasons in the mid-80s and had been an assistant at McNeese State and Nevada Las Vegas, the latter under Jerry Tarkanian. And though Chelette battled NCAA investigators while at Southeastern Louisiana, another trip to the big time was still in the back of his mind.

Those thoughts began to disappear when Chelette hit the desert.

"People told me this job would be a great opportunity," he said. "It really was tailor-made for me. They needed someone to coach basketball, teach a sports officiating class and golf classes. . . . When I got the job, I had [Tarkanian's] assurance that if I didn't like it I could go back on his staff."

Chelette never had to ask.

In their first campaign under Chelette, the Marauders finished 27-6, won the first of three consecutive Foothill Conference championships and were ranked seventh in the state. The victories tied the school's single-season record set in 1955-56.

The Marauders nearly equaled the record again in Chelette's second season when an enormously talented nonconformist named J.R. Rider blew into town and averaged 33.6 points to lead them to a 26-5 record. He also brought a checkered academic history that made Chelette's head spin.

The 6-foot-5 swingman, who plays as Isaiah Rider for the Minnesota Timberwolves, signed with Kansas State out of Encinal High in Alameda, Calif., but did not meet the NCAA Prop. 48 requirements and ended up at Allen County (Kan.) Community College.

He soon left Kansas with a barely detectable grade-point average and agreed to play at Las Vegas for Tarkanian, who asked Chelette to take Rider and turn him into a student at Antelope Valley.

That was no small order. Rider was declared ineligible to play for the Marauders because of problems with his grade transcripts. He missed seven games before being reinstated after appealing. His stint with the Marauders, and the connection between Chelette and Tarkanian, had people cynically referring to Antelope Valley as UNAV.

"All of J.R.'s shenanigans from Kansas followed him here," Chelette said. "I felt a lot of pressure because of my relationship with Coach Tarkanian. He had asked me to put J.R.'s life in order. This was the only place where he had academic success. I take that as a compliment for our system."

*

Chelette's system produces winners.

With or without star players such as Rider, who transferred to Las Vegas after one season at Antelope Valley, Chelette has done well at every level he has coached.

The Marauders have won at least 20 games every season under Chelette and have won four titles, including the Foothill Conference North Division championship last season, when Chelette was voted coach of the year.

This season, the Marauders are 19-6, 3-0 in the Foothill Conference North Division after defeating Victor Valley, XX-XX, Wednesday night and are ranked 11th in the state.

Chelette said from the start that this was perhaps his best overall team, one that could reach the state final eight tournament in March at San Jose State.

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