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THE STAR GAZERS : Servite Tournament Draws Top Players and Recruiters

Times Staff Writer

They came from far-away Boise, Ida., Eugene, Ore., Tucson, Ariz. and Las Vegas, and from nearby Fullerton, Long Beach, Pomona and Los Angeles.

They are college basketball’s coaching Paparazzi --minus the cameras and flash bulbs--in town to watch the stars of high school basketball at the Servite Classic Summer Tournament.

About 25 college coaches, including George McQuarn of Cal State Fullerton, Joe Harrington of Cal State Long Beach, and assistants from UNLV, UCLA, USC, Cal, Oregon, Arizona, Loyola Marymount, UC Santa Barbara and Boise State, were in Servite’s gym Friday to watch a few--and, in some cases, all--of the eight first-round games.

Featured were several of Southern California’s best high school teams, including state champions Mater Dei and Woodbridge and Southern Section 3-A champion Santa Monica, and some of the nation’s top players, including guard Darrick Martin of St. Anthony and center Adam Keefe of Woodbridge.

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There were a few disappointments--Inglewood’s two best players missed the Sentinels’ game against Los Alamitos because they were in summer-school classes, and Servite’s 6-foot 8-inch center Nick Marusich couldn’t play because of a knee injury, much to the dismay of University of San Francisco assistant John Cosentino, whose top priority Friday was to scout Marusich.

But, all in all, it was a pretty good day.

“You have a lot of good teams and all these good players in one setting. . . . This is a heck of a place to be,” said Brian Hammel, USC assistant.

Apparently not for basketball fans. Attendance was low Friday, with the exception of two afternoon games (St. Anthony-Fullerton and Servite-Dominguez), which drew about 200. While the crowds increased to about 500 Saturday night, they weren’t exactly packing them in for Saturday’s second-round games.

But the success of a summer tournament is not measured in gate receipts. It is measured, instead, by the number of college coaches in attendance. By that standard, the Servite tournament is doing just fine.

In its ninth year, the tournament, organized by Servite Coach Larry Walker, has developed a reputation as one of the best-organized, best-run and best-officiated in the state. Twelve of the 16 NCAA referees calling the tournament games have worked at the Division I level.

“Of all the summer tournaments, this is one of the best,” said Jay Hillock, Loyola assistant.

Having good teams and players helps too. That’s why the college coaches are here.

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Granted, there are many benefits for everyone else involved. Against better competition, high school coaches can pinpoint their team’s weak spots well before the season. Players can battle for starting positions and gauge their skills against other good players.

But what most really want is to catch the eye of a college coach.

“When the scouts are watching, you have to play well,” said Steve Guild, Marina forward.

That makes the games exciting, despite the absence of large crowds. A mere 50 or so spectators were scattered about the gym for the last of Friday’s games, between Woodbridge and Capistrano Valley, but at least 10 were college coaches.

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“It makes it big time,” said Keefe, the Warriors’ star center. “It gets me fired up and makes the game more interesting.”

There were no league titles or Southern Section championships at stake Friday, but there was no shortage of intensity. There were swarming, full-court presses, monster slam dunks, and players diving after balls as if their lives depended on it.

“Here, you find out how much kids want to compete,” said Harrington, who is preparing for his first season at Long Beach. “There are no real rivalries, like they have during the school year. You get a feel for how motivated players are in the off-season, which is when most players get better.”

Although coaches are not allowed to speak or come in contact with players during the summer evaluation period, their primary objective is still to recruit.

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For the top-notch players they are actively recruiting, coaches attend summer games to show their interest.

For instance, UCLA assistant Jack Hirsch and UNLV assistant Mark Warkentien spent only a brief part of the afternoon at the tournament. But both were on hand for the entire St. Anthony game to watch Martin, considered by some to be the country’s best all-around high school point guard. UCLA and UNLV are recruiting Martin.

Other coaches are looking to further evaluate players to determine whether they would fit into their programs, to get a first-hand look at players they’ve heard about, or to compare players they are recruiting in Southern California to those in other parts of the country.

And everyone is looking for that good underclassmen to put in their future files.

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“You want to accomplish several things,” said Morris Hodges, Oregon assistant.

The Servite tournament--sort of a one-stop, convenience center for college coaches--is just the place to do it.

Most coaches said they preferred to evaluate players in the more structured setting of a high school team tournament, as opposed to an invitational all-star camp, such as the Nike Camp at Princeton or the Superstar Camp at UC Santa Barbara.

“Those can become guard shows, where everyone tries to be a superstar,” Hillock said. “But this is very close to what you’ll see in December.”

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But nothing like what any coach expects to see in December.

“This is a tremendous time-saver,” Harrington said. “I can watch 16 teams in one day. It would take me eight days to do that in the winter, and I don’t have the time to do that.”


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