If there is one thing Gary Zarecky learned last year it’s that he needs to be a little more like Gary Kasparov, the world chess champion.
“It’s a learning process for me,” said Zarecky, entering his fourth year as U.S. International University’s basketball coach. “You can’t wait for your system to kick in. In high school, if you have the talent and the stronger team mentally, it will eventually kick in, and you can beat teams that have lesser talent or aren’t as well-prepared.”
That was the way it was when he was establishing a county power at Sweetwater High School.
“It doesn’t work like that at this level,” he said. “They play chess with you. Every breath you take, they (opposing coaches) take one. Every time you make a move, they make a counter move.”
And Zarecky says he was checkmated too many times last season.
The Gulls (10-18) would play a good first half, taking the lead or staying within striking distance, only to have opponents put them away in the second.
“I have to make those decisions on the bench (this year),” Zarecky said. “Last year, we didn’t make those coaching adjustments, and we also had problems on the court, and we may have played over our heads in the first half, and the other team’s talent caught up with us.”
This season, Zarecky thinks he has the talent to concentrate on coaching.
“The first year we wanted to get attention toward USIU, and we did that by leading the nation in scoring,” Zarecky said. “The second year we wanted to get some respect and credibility, which I think we did as we got 11 wins. The third year we wanted to play a little tougher schedule and go after more Division I players that in the past we thought may have been out of bounds for us. And we’ve had the best recruiting class this year since I’ve been at USIU.”
And for the fourth year?
“Clean up the basketball,” Zarecky said. “The pressure is on me this year. I’ve put the pressure on myself. Xs and O’s will be the priority.”
Zarecky will be trying to blend 8 new players with 7 returners while playing one of the toughest USIU schedules in years.
The Gulls return 2 starters--sophomore center Mike Sterner (6-11, 245) and guard Steve Smith (6-3, 200), who played at Serra High. Sterner averaged 5.6 points and 6 rebounds as a freshman last season. Smith will move from the point, where he averaged 12.8 points and had a team-high 87 assists, to off guard.
Zarecky’s top priority is to find a point guard to replace Smith. The top 2 candidates are junior Jake Hodges (6-2, 190), who led Palomar Community College to the state tournament, and Willie Davis (6-0, 165), a freshman from Morse.
Another weakness last season was at forward. Zarecky brought in 5, including Demetrius Laffitte (6-5, 205), a transfer from Long Beach State and Grossmont Community College who also played at Monte Vista High; Gary Williams (6-5, 190), a junior from Palomar who was named to the all-state team, and Greg Howard (6-6, 202), a 22-year-old freshman out of the Navy.
The Gulls will play 4 games against 3 teams that made the NCAA Tournament last year--home and away against Loyola Marymount and on the road against Syracuse and Rhode Island.
USIU will also play USC and St. Mary’s. County rivals San Diego State (Feb. 25) and University of San Diego (Feb. 28) will end the season. The Gulls open at home Nov. 26 against Air Force at Golden Hall, where USIU is contracted to play through 1992.
“We feel we have to go that way (scheduling top teams),” Zarecky said. “It helps in recruiting. There’s a lot of outstanding talent out there that’s sitting on other people’s bench. We have to figure out how to get them to USIU, and scheduling is one way.
“Also, I’m enough of an eternal optimist to think anything can happen on a given night.”