Losing high school All-American Shon Tarver to graduation was bad enough. But when Coach Lou Cvijanovich surveyed his 1990-91 Santa Clara High basketball team last summer, he saw four juniors in the starting lineup and numerous question marks.
Could this group of untested players carry the heavy mantle of two-time defending state champions without collapsing under the weight?
It certainly didn’t seem so last summer at a Las Vegas summer tournament. Cvijanovich, whose reputation as a disciplinarian has been well cultivated over his 33-year Santa Clara career, suspended senior captain Anthony Maestas and key juniors Chris Cole and Stevie Amar for four weeks in mid-June when a youthful initiation rite turned nasty.
Now, nine months later, Maestas, Cole and Amar have helped shoulder the load while carrying Santa Clara to the brink of California high school basketball history: The Saints will face Northern California Division IV champion Hayward (33-2) Friday night at 8 in Oakland--at stake is an unprecedented third consecutive boys’ state title.
And it is primarily because a few boys took some painful steps toward becoming men during the summer.
“We’ve finally arrived at our own destiny and identity,” Cvijanovich said. “And who in the heck would have thought that after the summer?”
Not the coach, to be sure. He was disgusted and outraged when, as a prank, Maestas, Amar, Cole and some reserves decided to initiate freshmen in the program by shaving parts of their eyebrows.
“Every year in the summer, on the trip to Vegas, the seniors kind of initiate you,” Maestas said. “It’s a yearly thing. But this year we took it too far.”
When some of the younger players who escaped the first round of shaving teased the victims at the next day’s practice, the original pranksters decided to teach the teasers a lesson. That night, they shaved off the entire eyebrows of some players and half an eyebrow on others.
Tempers soon flared and two of the younger players traded punches. After Cvijanovich learned of the incident that night, Maestas was summoned to the coach’s hotel room.
Anyone familiar with the ursine Cvijanovich knows that a one-on-one meeting with the angry coach is not a coveted invitation.
“He asked me for the truth,” Maestas said. “I was kinda stuck, because we try to stick together, but you can’t lie to Coach. He was really disappointed.”
Thinking that a tongue-lashing was the end of the punishment, Maestas, Amar and Cole showed up for the team’s game the next day. When Maestas went to get his ankles taped, Cvijanovich told him not to bother. The coach then ordered Amar, Maestas and Cole to sit alone at the end of the gym, 10 feet apart, and watch their teammates in action.
“We held our own without them,” said senior Evan Swanger, another captain. “But after a while, we realized how much we missed them.”
They would miss them for much longer. After the team returned from Las Vegas, Cvijanovich sat the pranksters down in the faculty cafeteria and demanded that letters of apology be written to the parents of the victims.
Further, the players were hit with one-month suspensions. The trio showed up to watch the team’s next summer-league game, but Cvijanovich barred them from the gym.
“We felt (terrible),” Maestas said.
Santa Clara played the next month at half-strength and won only occasionally. But to Cvijanovich, there was a greater prize at stake. “The immaturity was something like I’ve never seen,” he said. “They had to learn to be interested in being a team. And that means respecting each other.”
By the time the suspensions were lifted in mid-July, all parties allow, Santa Clara was ready to be whole again.
The reception for Maestas, Cole and Amar was a warm one, and the players met among themselves to establish a “new identity” for the 1990-91 Santa Clara team.
“We pretty much knew Coach kept them out for a lesson,” Swanger said. “But when they came back it was like, ‘All right. Here we go. We’re together. The family is back.’
“We realized how much we missed each other and how important it was for us to gel and to be a team. It did make us closer.”
Added Maestas: “By the time we came back, we were dying. We all realized it was a mistake. We felt we learned our lesson. We just missed the team so much.”
Cvijanovich, who has taken his teams to 12 Southern Section basketball titles, knew what he was doing all along. With a newfound purpose, and with newfound respect for each other, the Saints embarked on crusade to prove themselves worthy of their own identity--without Shon Tarver.
In 32 games, Santa Clara has lost only to Southern Section Division I-A champion Santa Barbara in overtime, Mater Dei in double-overtime, San Francisco Riordan and Las Vegas Bishop Gorman. The Saints swept through the Frontier League undefeated, stormed their way to the school’s third consecutive Southern Section title, then proved their mettle in overcoming an 11-point second-half deficit in a Southern California semifinal to defeat St. Monica.
Finally, after a 68-55 drubbing of Lincoln Prep in the Southern California final last Saturday at Cal State Dominguez Hills, Cvijanovich and the Saints return to Oakland, a three-year 22-game playoff streak intact. It will be the fourth trip to the state final for a Cvijanovich-coached team since the state tournament was resumed in 1981.
One game now separates the Saints from completing a goal that seemed unlikely in June.
Cvijanovich credits his assistants Craig (Mo) Moulhardt and Albert Santana with helping smooth over relations. “The kids love them,” Cvijanovich said.
Clearly, Santa Clara is a team that has come a long way from that trip to Las Vegas. So far, in fact, that the players are man enough to know that there are still miles to go before they sleep.
“If we work hard and let Coach lead us, then we’ll get there,” Swanger said. “It’s not over yet. We just can’t stop now.”