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MAKING IT ON VARSITY : TWO WHO DID IT : Wulfemeyer, Carlander Remember the Good and Bad of Their Freshmen Seasons

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Times Staff Writer

They’re big and talented and have a couple of summers of experience on all-star traveling teams. But not all coaches believe in promoting talented players to the varsity level in their first year. After all, outside factors can make life difficult for a freshman.

It was difficult to take Mark Wulfemeyer seriously when he was a freshman at Troy High School in 1970-71.

Here was this pimply faced 14-year-old starting on the varsity basketball team.

On the first day of practice, his teammates weren’t sure if they should pass him the ball or hand him their empty water bottles and dirty towels. Wulfemeyer looked more like the team manager.

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Opponents wondered whether they should guard him or ask him if he needed a ride home after the game.

Even after making 10 of 13 shots and scoring 27 points in his first game against Pius X, Wulfemeyer didn’t command much respect.

Throughout a season in which he averaged 20 points a game and helped the Warriors to a 20-5 record and the Freeway League championship, Wulfemeyer occasionally would find mysterious packages waiting for him in the school’s front office.

One game day, it was a tube of Clearasil from an anonymous sender. Another time it was a pair of pajamas, the kind with the slippers attached to the bottom. And once he found a package of diapers.

“I guess I was the baby,” Wulfemeyer said.

And that was just the treatment he’d receive from opposing teams. Such pranks seemed flattering compared to what Wulfemeyer’s teammates put him through during his freshman season.

“They’d give me all the cruddy things to do,” said Wulfemeyer, today a 27-year-old living in El Toro. After graduating from Troy, Wulfemeyer played basketball at USC for 1 1/2 years before quitting to pursue a professional baseball career. That didn’t pan out, and he’s working at a produce warehouse in Irvine and playing basketball on the weekends.

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“I’d have to pick up the smelly socks, jocks and uniforms after practice,” he said. “I got the last pick of the equipment and had to take the old workout jerseys. I was the last one to pick a uniform number, and I had to sit in the back of the bus on road trips.”

But if Wulfemeyer had it to do all over again, he wouldn’t have changed a thing.

“Playing varsity as a freshman helped me,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been better off on a lower level. Ability-wise, I was ready to play varsity basketball. I might have averaged 50 points a game on the freshman or junior varsity team, but that wouldn’t have helped my basketball skills at all.

“Some of those incidents might have upset other people, but I had everything in perspective, even at that age. I knew what I could do on the basketball court, and that was all I worried about.”

Wulfemeyer was one of Orange County’s most prominent players who started as a high school freshman. Wayne Carlander, who began his prep career at El Toro before transferring to Ocean View, and is a starter at USC, is another.

They went on to become two of the CIF Southern Section’s most prolific scorers. Wulfemeyer, a hot-shooting guard, averaged 27.5 points per game during his four-year career and made 2,608 career points. Carlander, a center, scored 2,314 points for a 22.3 average.

Both point to their freshman seasons as great learning experiences that promoted their basketball development. But Wulfemeyer and Carlander each said playing on the varsity as freshmen had drawbacks.

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“After the games, the guys would go to a party or pizza place, but I couldn’t go because I was only 14,” Wulfemeyer said. “I’d go home and watch college games on TV. They’d all have girlfriends, but I wasn’t quite ready for that. It didn’t bother me a whole bunch, but it was a problem. I think if you can handle it physically, you’ll eventually be able to handle it emotionally.”

Said Carlander: “One of the hard things is you’re hanging around with seniors and juniors most of your freshman year. You almost didn’t have time to spend with the people you had spent the last two years with. They were off practicing at another time. I’d see my friends some, but not a whole lot.”

During junior high school, Carlander played 80 to 100 games each summer with the South Coast Traveling All-Stars, an experience he credited as the main reason he progressed so quickly. But even though he was clearly good enough to play varsity as a freshman at El Toro, he sensed a touch of resentment from some of his older teammates.

“There was probably some jealousy from other players,” he said. “We started that season off with 12 people, but two or three quit and some went down to the JV. We ended the year with eight. A couple of guys wondered why they weren’t playing, but that didn’t bother me. I don’t think they would have played even if I wasn’t there.”

Wulfemeyer could empathize with Carlander.

“In summer league, where the guys I played with were mostly juniors and seniors, they didn’t particularly care for me playing,” he said. “I realized the different looks I was getting, and they were hesitant in passing the ball to me, even when I was open.

“But once the season started, they relied on my scoring to win. There was no more resentment when they realized I could play.”

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Carlander, a 1981 graduate of Ocean View, is a senior at USC and is the Trojans’ leading scorer. He has started all four years in college.

“I played the same kind of role here (at USC) as I did in my freshman year at El Toro,” Carlander said. “I scored when I got the ball and was open, I played a lot of defense and hit the boards hard. Not much was expected out of me. In seventh and eighth grade, I got the ball and shot a lot, but I took maybe four to six shots a game in my freshman year in high school.”

Wulfemeyer assumed more of an offensive role at Troy, but a big adjustment still transpired after junior high.

“Instead of having a handful of people watching you play, now you had 2,000 watching you,” he said. “There were tougher demands placed on you by the coaches. You have a 14-year-old emotional mind, yet you’re playing with older people.

“It’s good for you in your progress and basketball skills, but if you don’t have someone to guide you, it can cause a lot of emotional stress. My Dad always helped me keep everything in perspective.”

And he gave him rides home from the games, too.

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