Dan Guerrero, the athletic director at Cal State Dominguez Hills, was strolling through the Toro gymnasium recently when a loose basketball rolled past his feet.
What Guerrero saw after that amazed him. Two freshman basketball players hustled after the ambling orb on its path through a door and into the athletic training room, all the while jostling for position, each intent on getting control of the ball first.
Athletes trying to impress coaches in early season basketball practices is nothing new, but Guerrero, who wants Dominguez Hills to become a perennial national Division II power by the early 1990s, was excited to see the extent to which the newcomers carried their enthusiasm for Coach Dave Yanai conducting practice nearby.
"Dave had a great recruiting class and I look for him to have another good one next year," said Guerrero.
True, Yanai had a very good recruiting season, thanks in part of a cash influx on the part of Guerrero's administration. Some of the money helped Yanai make increased scholarship offers. Three newcomers on this year's team were selected to The Times' All-South Bay high school team and one of those was an All-City Section selection.
But, as with many new things, this team will take time to develop. In the meantime, maybe a year or two, its performances are expected to be uneven at best. Yet, there are people like Guerrero who believe that a few more key additions next year will help the Toros mature into a very good basketball team in the next decade.
With nine new players and only one bona fide starter returning, Yanai admitted that this year may be "an adventure." Hustle, then, is a quality Yanai is looking for this season in his freshman-laden club, which follows a group that went 20-10 and advanced to the Western Regionals. Yanai brings a 186-137 record into the season.
Without 6-foot-7 center Anthony Blackmon, now playing in Japan, the Toros figure to be a much different-looking team, shorter and perhaps quicker. How quickly they can adapt to the loss of a big man in the middle who produced 20 points and 10 rebounds a game will determine their fate.
"We have so many young players. They've got to buckle up and get better," Yanai said. "We'll be slower starting in terms of winning in the early going. Our concern is progress and getting ready for the conference."
Still, Yanai bristles at the thought of a "rebuilding year."
"I don't ever like to use that term. This is not a rebuilding year. Every year we prepare our players to compete for the championship."
A rugged preseason schedule that includes games with sectional powers Cal State Hayward, Sonoma State, Washburn U., West Texas State, North Central Illinois, Grand Canyon College, Quincy College and a pair of games with Biola University all but guarantees a not so hot won-loss record going into California Collegiate Athletic Assn. play in January. In fact, this may be the toughest preseason slate Dominguez Hills has had, all part of Guerrero's wishes to upgrade the Toro schedule.
"This schedule is very, very tough for this club," Yanai said. "It's tough for any club in any given year."
Yanai said the Toros will run a bit more than last year, because, without Blackmon, the CCAA's Athlete of the Year, a half-court offense might not be as effective.
Look for junior guard Robert Barksdale from Hawthorne to spur the fast-breaking Toros from the point. Last year he averaged 13.4 points and 3.5 assists per game. From the free throw line he made 84% of his attempts. He also made 40% of his three-point tries. A streaky shooter, he seldom misses when he is on a roll.
"Robert has to give us a great deal of leadership," Yanai said. "From a scoring standpoint, the loss of Blackmon will hurt, but Robert is very capable."
Six-foot-2 sophomore Mike Bell (2.6 points per game), a strong defensive player in a substitute role last year, figures to get the initial start at the off-guard spot, but look for freshman Raymond Bennett, who averaged 16.5 points a game at Carson High School, to see plenty of playing time. Senior swing Kevin Shaw will probably see more time off the bench at the guard spot, although newcomers John Brown (Montebello), Anthony Gonzales (Garfield), Shelton Hill (Bishop Montgomery) and Eddie Wilson (Manual Arts) have a shot.
The front line is "in limbo," according to Yanai. Freshmen Vincent Washington from Carson, the Pacific League's Most Valuable Player last spring, will play a role. He averaged 17 points a game. Shaw, who grabbed 11 rebounds in the consolation game of the Western Regional, could move up front if he has too, but more likely look for newcomers Joseph Janney from Ghana and walk-on Norman Francis from Fairfax, on-again, off-again starters Segaro Bozart (6.4 points per game) and Brian Johnson (3.9) and red-shirt junior Michael Rudberg (1.9) to battle for front-line jobs. Curtis Wright, a 6-foot-8 freshman from Modesto, hopes to walk on. In the wings is Damon Estelle, also of Carson, who did not qualify academically according to NCAA rules (Proposition 48), will be eligible to play in December if he finishes 12 units in the fall semester. In 1988 at Carson he averaged 12.3 points and 8.9 rebounds a game.
"We're basically starting with two guards and everything else is up for grabs," Yanai said. "This is a nice group of kids, a hard-working bunch."
Derrick Clark, last year's point guard, is finishing his quest for a college degree, now that his playing days are over. He will assist Yanai this season, as will Bart Yamachika. Those are familiar faces for Yanai, who hopes desire and hustle from a new group of players will counter inexperience.
"They don't want for competition," he said with a smile. "They don't know what they are doing yet, but they are trying very, very hard."