OXNARD — It was a major injury, a broken fifth metatarsal in Nick Jones' left foot, that would have a major impact on two players.
Expectations had barely begun to peak on the Santa Clara High boys' basketball team last season when Jones landed awkwardly on a teammate's foot while fighting for a loose ball.
The cruelest part? It happened on the first day of practice in what was supposed to be the start of a stellar junior season for Jones, an All-Ventura County selection as a sophomore.
Jones rested his foot for three months, made an ill-fated attempt to come back during a Frontier League game and finally returned for the playoffs, hobbling and wincing the entire time.
"I was in pain, but I was so determined to do it for my team," said Jones, who slowly realized that the Saints were in reasonably good shape thanks to the development of a previously unheralded guard.
B.J. Ward, three inches shorter than the 6-foot-4 Jones and with much less name recognition at the time, was thrust into the scorer's role in Jones' absence.
He accepted. And excelled, averaging 19.3 points and earning a spot on The Times' All-Ventura County team.
This season, Ward has teamed with Jones, who returned with renewed vigor, to lead Santa Clara (29-3) to the state Division V championship game tonight against Modesto Calvary Temple Christian (32-5) at Arco Arena in Sacramento.
Sitting on the sidelines last season was tough for Jones, who watched Santa Clara uncharacteristically lose six league games.
"I got to see a lot of teams really disrespect us in a lot of ways," Jones said. "We were losing and teams were taking it out on us purposely, celebrating in front of us at our home. There was a lot of disrespect to the school and Coach [Lou Cvijanovich].
"It made me want to come back this year and blow everybody away."
Has he succeeded?
"We're one game away [from a state title]. If we get that done, I think I've done it."
Jones might be more focused and more appreciative of his playing time, but don't try to float the 'injury can be a good thing' theory to Cvijanovich.
"I don't buy that," Cvijanovich said. "Think how good he would be now if he had played his junior season."
UC Santa Barbara liked what it saw in Jones and Ward, signing both players to letters of intent in November.
Washington State also showed interest in both players, but big-time programs kept their distance.
Some colleges may have been turned off by Jones' injury. Others may have been worried about Ward's height.
"I think there were a lot of colleges that made a mistake with both of us," Ward said. "That's their fault. We're going to go to Santa Barbara and get some wins. I want to be something special in the Big West Conference."
Somehow, you get the feeling he'll keep his word.
Boys' Basketball, Division V
* Santa Clara (29-3) vs. Modesto Calvary Temple Christian (32-5)
Today, 4:15 p.m., at Arco Arena, Sacramento