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VALLEY/VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

For Santa Clara High Boys' Basketball coach Lou Cvijanovich and His Saints, Another Run at a Section title and a State Playoff Berth Has been a SEASON OF SURVIVAL

March 10, 1998|ROB FERNAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OXNARD — It figures Lou Cvijanovich would be fighting a cold.

After everything else that has happened to the Santa Clara High boys' basketball coach in the past eight months, getting ill was predictable.

At 71, Cvijanovich has become a man of misfortune for all seasons.

Last summer, his right knee was replaced with an artificial joint. In the fall, he had prostate surgery. Last month, he missed a few games after having his gallbladder removed, days after the death of a beloved older brother.

"Now I've got the dog-gone cold," he said between coughing jags. "It has not been an easy year."

But in typical fashion, it has been a successful one.

Santa Clara (14-13) played in its 18th Southern Section final under Cvijanovich on Friday, losing to Pacific Hills in overtime, 82-76, at UC Irvine, and will travel to Visalia Central Valley Christian (24-4) for a first-round game in the state Division V Southern Regional at 7:30 tonight.

After nearly falling apart, the Saints have pulled together nicely in Cvijanovich's 40th season as coach.

Santa Clara's season started inauspiciously when star player Nick Jones broke his left foot on the first day of practice. But the 6-foot-3 junior returned for the playoffs and showed he's rounding into form by scoring 25 points Friday.

"You pinch yourself because it's unbelievable, especially getting Nicky back full throttle," Cvijanovich said. "The whole season, the kids have busted their tails for us.

"After Nick's injury and me being gone all the time, they could have called it quits and let it all go down the drain. But they persevered."

In that regard, the Saints aren't much different than their legendary coach, who last year became the first person from Ventura County inducted into the National High School Sports Hall of Fame.

Despite a series of health problems in recent years, Cvijanovich remains a fixture on the sideline because of his devotion to the game, his players and his school.

"What he taught me is that you should love whatever you do in life," Steve Cvijanovich said of his father. "That's why he's still coaching. People keep asking, 'When is he going to retire?' Why should he retire? This is something he loves."

Steve, one of Cvijanovich's eight children and six sons, has been Santa Clara's assistant coach since his father had an angioplasty following the 1994-95 season. Steve temporarily filled in as coach this season after his father's Feb. 5 gallbladder operation.

"This has probably been his hardest year," Steve said.

The physical toll exacted from Cvijanovich was evident Friday night. After addressing the media in a postgame interview room, he needed to be helped down two small steps leading from the stage.

Moments later, he hinted that next season might be his last.

"That's a possibility," he said. "A very good possibility."

That would give him one more chance to win his 15th section title with a team that returns Jones and B.J. Ward, the Saints' standout junior guard. Both players are Division I prospects. Among those in attendance Friday was Pepperdine Coach Lorenzo Romar, who is interested in the talented pair.

Ward lit up Pacific Hills for a game-high 34 points, and Cvijanovich provided sparks, too.

"What the hell are you doing?" he yelled after giving a quick hook to a player who missed an ill-advised three-point shot. The game was less than three minutes old.

Later in the first half, Cvijanovich got on an official for failing to blow his whistle after a rough play: "That was almost assault!"

Cvijanovich even got into it with some Santa Clara fans who were riding the officials.

"You better believe it," he said when asked about the incidents after the game. "My health is never going to be that poor that I can't chew."

However, he did give serious thought to retiring a month ago.

"I was really thinking about it when I had my gallbladder operation," he said. "But it was such a tremendous success. I've lost 55 pounds [down to 250] and I'm getting my strength back."

The problem was diagnosed while Cvijanovich was in Tucson, Ariz., for the funeral of his brother Joe in late January. Joe, 87, was patriarch of the family.

Cvijanovich went to a restaurant after the funeral, climbed a couple of stairs and passed out. His fall opened a gash on his cheek that required stitches.

"They rushed me to the hospital as a heart patient," he said. "I was lying in the hospital when I woke up and saw the paramedics. I thought sure as hell I was gone."

Cvijanovich's heart checked out fine--doctors said dehydration contributed to his fainting spell--but recurring stomach pain eventually pointed to a gallbladder problem.

After missing a few games, Cvijanovich returned in time to guide Santa Clara to its sixth appearance in a section final in the 1990s. The thrill of playing in a championship game isn't the same as it was in 1957, the year the Saints made their first appearance in a section final under Cvijanovich, but he still enjoys the ride.

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