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The Preps : Playing Up to Stuff : Larger Schools Might Want Orange Lutheran to Pick on Someone Its Own Size

Times Staff Writer

David versus Goliath, Underdog, The Little Engine That Could . . .

This season, the Orange Lutheran High School boys’ basketball team just cannot live down the comparisons. No matter how hard it tries.

The real story of Orange Lutheran--exceptional athletes, increased team pride and confidence--has been all but overshadowed by the romantic notion that Orange Lutheran, having come close to beating schools four or five times its size, has become the giant killer of Orange County basketball.

Has it? Well, not quite. Though that hasn’t discouraged the ever-growing number of Lancer basketball fans.

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The fact is that Orange Lutheran--a Southern Section 2-A school with an enrollment of about 500--is small compared with the majority of some 65 high schools in Orange County.

But this season, Orange Lutheran (11-3 overall, 4-0 in the Olympic League) has proven that it can play with the bigger schools. Because of that, and the publicity it has brought to the school, the Lancers have received more attention on campus and from alumni than in the past several years combined.

Home crowds, once numbering fewer than 50, are at an all-time high. More than 1,000 are expected tonight when the Lancers play host to Whittier Christian in an Olympic League game at 7:30.

“The band’s even coming,” Orange Lutheran Principal Richard Klatt said. “They’ve never wanted to come to basketball games before. Now they’re volunteering.

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Whittier Christian (10-3, 3-0), which has won six league championships in the past 7 years, had to settle for a co-championship last season with Orange Lutheran.

Tonight’s game should begin to settle the question of whether Orange Lutheran is, as some suspect, ready to step forward and dethrone the Heralds.

Center Pat Bagatourian, forward Daryl Cole and off-guard Jason Neben are the main keys to Orange Lutheran’s success this season.

At 6-feet 2-inches, Bagatourian, who is averaging 21 points a game and shooting 62% from the field, is not one of the tallest centers in the county by any means. But his height, Coach Jerry Simmons said, is no indication of his ability.

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“Pat’s a center in a guard’s body,” Simmons said. “He’s 6-2, but it’s a tough 6-2. His heart makes him more like 6-10, really.”

Cole, averaging 24 points, is one of the county’s best pure shooters. “He’d always been a scorer,” Lancer assistant Chuck Thomas said. “But now he’s asking what else can he do for the team. His defense and rebounding have really made a difference.”

Neben, a talented option quarterback and long jumper, is the team’s best athlete. Only 6 feet, he has a tremendous vertical leap. He has three slams so far this season.

The other starters are junior forward Kent Dowding, an aggressive defensive specialist, and point guard Luke Aucoin, who despite being a freshman, has demonstrated poise and leadership.

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Around campus, Lancer basketball, once a non-issue, now is a trendy subject. Especially after the Lancers came so close to beating three prestigious programs, each of which is more than four times Orange Lutheran’s size.

Orange Lutheran lost to San Bernardino Cajon, a 4-AA school with an enrollment of 2,150, 70-69, in early December. Capistrano Valley (5-A, 2,400) had to go to overtime to defeat the Lancers, 85-81, Dec. 27. And Long Beach Wilson (5-AA, 2,900) defeated the Lancers, 62-60, Dec. 30.

It was the Capistrano Valley game that generated the most excitement. The Cougars were the county’s seventh-ranked team at the time, but the Lancers outplayed Capistrano Valley most of the game.

Lancermania was on its way.

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“Before the Capo game, a lot of people, like classmates and stuff, were trying to make Capo bigger than they were,” Neben said.

“They were saying stuff like, ‘You guys are gonna get your butts kicked.’ But then after the game, everyone’s all, ‘Wow! You guys are good! We’re so surprised.’ A guy from last year’s team came up said, ‘You guys are awesome!’ ”

The players say the increased school support has given them a major confidence boost. But some of the players point out that, in some respects, it has also become a bit of a bother.

Especially when people start comparing the Lancers to giant killers. Other than a 71-65 victory over University (enrollment 2,180), the Lancers have not actually beaten a school with a great difference in enrollment.

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“The thing is, everybody’s making a big deal out of the Capo game, but we lost ,” Bagatourian said. “Even though we lost by 4, what’s the difference if it’s 4 or 20? A loss is a loss.

“I’d say we haven’t accomplished as much as everyone says we have. I don’t think we’re deserving of all of this (attention).

“But everybody’s trying to make us into the Little Hooisers story. It kind of bothers me because it doesn’t matter if you’re a big school or a little school. What matters is just that a team goes out on the court, and if five guys can play, then that’s what matters.”


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