What They Lack in Size They Make Up in Success : Estancia High Has a Model Program

Times Staff Writer

The Southern Section playoff matchup appeared to be one-sided.

Pomona High School featured a front line of 6-foot 7-inch Ron Draper, 6-6 Lamont Carruthers and 6-8 Macy Lee. Estancia's biggest starter was 6-3 center Jeff Graham.

But Estancia was prepared. It wasn't the first time the Eagles had the task of stopping a towering opponent. And despite its lack of height, Estancia eliminated Pomona, 74-61, last season in the 3-A playoffs.

Estancia eventually advanced to the championship game before losing to John W. North High of Riverside. But given their lack of height and talent, it was a surprising finish.

Estancia often is outsized, but seldom outmanned. It has used weaves, presses and fast breaks to make the postseason playoffs 10 consecutive years, including trips to the Southern Section final four in three of the past four seasons.

Estancia epitomizes Orange County basketball where teamwork, good coaching and preparation often overcome the absence of height or talent.

In the last 10 years, the Eagles have produced only two Division 1 college players--Jim McCloskey (USC) and Gary Orgill (St. Mary's)--but they've nonetheless been a successful prep program.

At Estancia, as well as other winning Orange County schools, disciplined practices and strong wills distinguish it from the others.

"I had very few college coaches come into our gym over the years, but we won as much as anybody," said Larry Sunderman, the former coach who developed the program. "The kids at Estancia are winners."

Said the current coach, Joe Reid: "These kids come from successful families who have worked very hard, and it reflects upon their children. No one has ever told them they couldn't. They're highly competitive, from the starting five to the last guy on the bench."

It's a scenario also heard at the Capistrano Valleys, the Mission Viejos and the Corona del Mars of Orange County basketball. But none play the role better than Estancia.

The Eagles don't have much height, but they still run at every opportunity. Estancia has traditionally fielded well-conditioned teams that seem to get stronger at game's end. All of Reid's practice drills are full-court exercises. He even has a free-throw parade, where each player sprints to six different baskets to practice shots.

"We also practice our press every day because it's been our great equalizer against bigger teams," Reid said.

Reid recalled a playoff game against Lynwood in 1981 that best characterized the Eagles' never-say-die attitude. Lynwood, which featured Al Marquetti (6-7), John McDaniels (6-5) and Alfred Jenkins (6-4), held an 11-point lead with about two minutes remaining when the Eagles staged what Reid called, "the greatest comeback I've ever seen."

Estancia utilized a full-court press to cut the deficit, and ultimately win the game in overtime, 51-49. Though the comeback was spectacular, the Eagles have demonstrated a habit of winning close games--especially the important ones.

Said Sunderman: "The first game I ever coached at Estancia was against Brea in the Laguna Beach Tournament. John Carrido made two free throws in the final seconds to win the game. It seemed to have a snowball effect on the program, and winning the close games just seemed to perpetuate.

"Granted, we lost some close ones, too. But it's amazing when you look back at our double overtime win over Glendora (63-61) in 1983 or the double overtime win over Foothill (42-40) the year before.

"I think the kids in Estancia's lower level programs and the seventh and eighth graders see these types of games, and they stay doubly embedded in their minds."

At Estancia, unlike many other schools, the fans are as fanatic about the team as the players. Capacity crowds follow the team, even on the road. The basketball booster club netted $13,800--more than many schools' football booster clubs profit.

Like most Orange County schools, the Eagles videotape all their games, but with a different twist.

The Estancia Sports Television Network (ESTN) features three former players who provide the commentary, postgame interviews and even some offbeat commercials. In one game, former players Jeff Gardner and Mike Markel and student Ken Curtis strolled through the darkened Estancia gym with their sports coats draped over their shoulders.

One said, "I stole the ball." Another replied, "I made the pass." A third said, "I made the shot."

The sequence ends with Gardner, a former Times' all-county guard in the New York Mets organization, flying through the air for a dunk. The tape fails to show that Gardner, 5-feet 11-inches, reached the basket with the help of a chair.

In many ways, Gardner characterizes the Eagle program. His size wasn't intimidating, but his dribbling skills were. If there is a common factor in Estancia's success, it's been the presence of intelligent guards.

Point guards are the stars. Orgill, John Carrido, Tim Krohnfeldt, Gardner, Jon Johnston were adept floor leaders. Adam Lockwood is following the tradition this year.

"The heart of all our successful teams has been the guards," Reid said. "We've been blessed with a great point guard every year. It might be the most important position in high-school basketball."

Sunderman claims another key factor in the Eagles' success has been the sibling rivalry among Eagle alumnus. The Krohnfeldt, Van Horn, Larimer, Camp and Orgill families have all been represented by two or more boys in the basketball program.

"The younger boys would come to the games, watch their brothers, and work for their moment of glory," Sunderman said. "I know the word tradition is overused, but there is a great tradition at Estancia.

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