GREAT EXPECTATIONS : Zarecky Has High Hopes, but USIU Hasn't Record to Match

The United States International University men's basketball team practices on the old San Diego Clipper court, in a warehouse. Two wooden signs hang on the wall.

One reads: Determination. The other: Pressure.

No one doubted Coach Gary Zarecky's determination when he took over the struggling USIU program in 1985. Zarecky left Sweetwater High School after coaching his teams to 11 San Diego Section playoff appearances in 15 years to take over a team that was 6-78 from 1982-85.

As his third season of Division I coaching concludes, Zarecky has no doubt what pressure means.

"We're at the point now where the hype and selling of the idea that we can compete is becoming the secondary thing," Zarecky said. "Now we have to start producing."

Zarecky is looking toward next season for production. This one has been a disappointment.

"He's got to start to grow, and we've got to start to grow now that we're back to ground zero," said Al Palmiotto, USIU athletic director. "He's gotten us out of the hole."

Expectations were high at the beginning of the season, when Zarecky said he had drastically upgraded the talent level through recruiting. USIU had finished 11-17 in 1987, only the second time the school had double-figure victories since it became Division I in 1979.

In the final week of the season, USIU is 8-18 after Monday's loss to Winthrop. The team will finish with home games against Cal State Sacramento (21-5) on Thursday and Florida International University (7-15) on Saturday.

"I'm disappointed in myself," Zarecky said. "I let optimism become unrealistic. I think my approach to this season was dreaming. We're all a little disappointed in what's happened to us. Reality is a painful learning experience.

"Again, I feel like it's a growth process for me. What I learned, I can't let happen again."

What Zarecky has learned is that making the jump from high school to Division I is not easy. The lessons come often and hard.

"I was unfair to my players," Zarecky said. "I overhyped them. I learned two cruel lessons. If you're not careful, this level is so tenacious it can eat you up. And you can convince a player he is a Division I player, but he learns real fast if he is not. He gives you everything, and he tries his hardest, but he's in over his head.

"I have to be able to better evaluate talent. I have to make sure I don't do this (overestimate his players' ability) in the future."

The season started with promise. The Gulls were 2-3, including road victories over Rice and Central Florida, their first away from home since the program became Division I.

Zarecky hoped USIU was ready to establish itself against its next opponent, San Diego State, a team it had beaten last year.

With San Diego State and the University of San Diego in transition years, Zarecky thought the Gulls might be ready to challenge

for the top spot in San Diego.

But USIU was swept: 103-68 by SDSU and 80-71 by USD.

"(SDSU Coach) Jim Brandenburg taught me a valuable lesson," Zarecky said. "I've learned there's a game you have to play. He soft-shoes. Why come in there on the white horse until you have the white horse? You don't hype them until they've done something. I did the hype first, without producing."

Although it has been a season of disappointment, Zarecky said there have been some small accomplishments, such as the road victories.

Also, teams on the schedule are asking for scouting videotapes of the Gulls, something no one bothered to do during Zarecky's first year.

"We're becoming a little bit better known," Zarecky said. "We're gaining a little respect. The only way to attack is with optimism and enthusiasm.

"People say, 'Come on, how can you be so enthusiastic?' " Zarecky said. "Sure I can. You gotta dream."

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