In an era when winning championships in high school basketball usually requires a transfer or two, plus an influx of players from outside the neighborhood, one team is ready to make a championship run relying on old-fashioned values and long-admired traditions.
Ventura High, with no transfers and lots of players who have known one another since elementary school, is 24-2 and received the No. 1 seeding Sunday for the Southern Section Division 2AA playoffs.
"There's four or five kids on the team I've been going to school with since sixth grade, and we always talked about how we'd win championships together," senior guard Jared Wilson said. "We'd play in the backyard, 'Oh, I'm this guy, we're going to win a championship in high school.' It would be a dream come true to be on that court, the buzzer goes off and Ventura won. To be with my friends, I'd be speechless. I'd be so blessed."
The fact the Cougars have made it this far is a tribute to their longtime coach, Dan Larson, a former Ventura player, and the community they come from. Yes, there are rebuilding years at Ventura, because the team is made up of neighborhood kids. But Larson, who took over the program in 1989 and won a section title in 2006, has been turning out quality squads for years and understands how difficult it is to win a championship when all-star teams are being formed elsewhere.
"A championship run is kind of a magical thing," he said. "You kind of get into your submarine, go underwater. You don't lift up your head until it's over. Both big runs we've made have included some luck, some good draws and some hard play."
Larson is a keeper. His children went to Ventura. His wife, Ann, coaches the girls' team. He's a U.S. history teacher and coach who has the full support of his administration whether he wins or loses.
"Not all coaches have that luxury," he said. "I feel sorry for a lot of coaches who get put into the spot where they have to produce wins and CIF championships right away at the cost of doing the right thing."
Watching Ventura is a treat because the Cougars have no superstars but lots of players who just like to compete. The tallest player, 6-foot-6 Josh Tice, is headed to Pepperdine to play water polo. Another contributor, 6-5 Dustan Neary, plays volleyball. The top receiver on the football team, Nick Rudolph, plays guard. There are track athletes and more football players. There's also a terrific shooter in Dylan Houck. Most of all, they are a group of best friends brought together by a love of sports.
"It's amazing," Tice said. "It's just a lot of fun. It's just a bunch of guys working together having a good time. It's just fun being with them and sharing the experience together."
They've played together at the park, in the pool, at the beach, on the sand. They know each other's secrets, likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses.
"We all have trust in one another," Wilson said.
Ventura's best performance this season probably came in a 52-51 loss to Etiwanda, seeded No. 4 in Division 1AA. The team's strengths are unselfishness, precision passing and chemistry.
And, if they run into any all-star teams along the way, that's OK.
"It's the challenge," Tice said. "It's the excitement. Here's a team built with all-stars. We just came together, and we have a chance to beat them."
So let the madness begin — only time will tell if the neighborhood kids from Ventura can win a championship.