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Ventura Highway Again Leads to the State JC Championships

After early problems following undefeated season, Pirates are No. 1 in women's rankings heading into final eight.


VENTURA — They knew it would be a tough act to follow.

How do you come up with another unblemished season and a state championship?

How do you live up to the expectations of a town accustomed to the success of a dominant women's basketball team?

How in the world does a team with no returning players try to make any of that possible?

Ventura College faced those issues this season.

"In the beginning of the season, we all felt the pressure," said Sarah Kolbeck, a freshman forward from Santa Paula High.

The Pirates are not unbeaten, like last season's team that finished 38-0 and took home a third state title in five years. But they have responded resoundingly to every other question.

Ventura (30-4) starts chasing another banner tonight when it meets Lassen (26-5) in the quarterfinals of the state championships at Delta College in Stockton. The final is a few blocks away on Saturday night, at the University of the Pacific.

Those are the same venues where Ventura capped a perfect season last March, becoming the first women's team to claim two state titles undefeated. The Pirates were 35-0 in 1995-96.

But this season's team is different. The Pirates had only two sophomores, Tina Samaniego from Oxnard and Kelly Murray from Buena. Samaniego transferred from Pepperdine and Murray from UC Irvine.

It didn't help that the Pirates lost two of their first three games. Yet, in a way, that might have been the best thing that happened to the team.

"The first couple of weeks I thought they felt the pressure of last [season's] team," Coach Ned Mircetic said. "Then they began to understand they were their own team with their own identity."

Once they got rolling, the Pirates were unstoppable. They cruised to another Western State Conference Northern Division title and the state's top ranking.

It was business as usual.

"There was a time, I think we had lost our fourth game, and someone made an off-the-cuff comment along the lines of 'You guys are off to a rough start,' and we were something like 17-4," Mircetic said. "That's not a bad start in my book."

Such is the price of success. Ventura and the state championships have become synonymous. A few years ago, it was the men's and women's teams, but only the women were left to carry the torch when the school disbanded the men's program after the 1995-96 season for rules violations.

The men's team was reinstated last season and this season came within one victory of reaching the state championships. The women, though, are right back on familiar territory, with a record seventh consecutive appearance in the tournament.

Mircetic, in his 11th season with the Pirates, pieced together another winner with a unit featuring mainly players from the region.

Murray averaged 16.2 points in the regular season, guard Monique Taylor from Channel Islands averaged 14.1 points and forward Estelle Diaz from Ventura High averaged 8.6 points. Kolbeck was among the WSC's top free-throw shooters at 72.5%.

For Mircetic, molding this group had added significance.

"I felt more pressure coaching these kids because they are so nice and I thought they deserved to win," Mircetic said. "I've been fortunate to have had some great human beings in this program, but this is the nicest group of kids I've ever coached."

Now, that might be a tough act to follow.

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