PREP WEDNESDAY: TOUGH ACTS TO FOLLOW : Trying to Win Respect and a Few Games, Too : Boys' basketball: Western's Cavanaugh is one of several first-year head coaches who have taken over top Orange County programs this season.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Matt Cavanaugh was born with cerebral palsy and doesn't need to be reminded twice about how to overcome challenges.

His life has been full of them.

He sought another challenge last spring when he applied for the vacant basketball coach's job at Western High.

He ignored warnings from friends and fellow coaches that the Pioneers were a troubled team. Wimps need not apply.

Friends told him the Western players were brokenhearted after Pioneer Coach Greg Hoffman had resigned to take a position at Marina High. They had stopped practicing, and some considered quitting the team.

"It wasn't a good situation," Cavanaugh said. "I figured I could get an interview there."

After two interviews, Cavanaugh landed the job last June--and an even tougher job of earning the respect of his new players.

He is one of several new coaches taking over some of Orange County's top programs this season.

With coaches such as Hoffman, Estancia's Tim O'Brien, Tustin's Tom McCluskey and Servite's Richard Smith moving on to other jobs, new positions have opened up for younger coaches throughout the county.

Cavanaugh, 26, could have stayed at Mater Dei, where he had coached the freshman team to a 49-2 record over the previous two seasons.

"You had everything you could want at Mater Dei," Cavanaugh said. "There was plenty of money, camps, great coaches you worked with. . . .

"But the freshman team practiced outside on the asphalt because there wasn't enough room in the gym (with other teams). It's a nice change to come to Western and practice in a gym."

But Cavanaugh came for other reasons. He wanted to become a head coach. He wanted to coach the way he learned as a student manager at Long Beach Millikan, Long Beach City College and under Bill Mulligan at UC Irvine, and later as freshman coach at Cypress and Mater Dei.

He also thought he could motivate players through positive thinking, the same way Mulligan, Mater Dei's Gary McKnight, former Millikan Coach Bill Odell and others had helped him throughout his coaching career.

"With my handicap, everything I have done has been built through encouragement," Cavanaugh said. "I've been unbelievably blessed to work with great people.

"No one has ever discouraged me from doing anything. I learned that encouragement is how you build people."

His positive approach, and patience, has been tested so far at Western.

Although Cavanaugh had a solid foundation to work with, there was plenty of rebuilding to do. The Pioneers returned four starters from an 18-8 Orange League championship team, including silky-smooth forward Frank Floyd, but the players didn't exactly welcome their new coach.

They were still loyal to Hoffman, with whom they had developed a close relationship during his 10 seasons at the school.

He won 130 of 208 games and three league titles with a demanding approach, often scolding players as a way of motivating them. But those who knew him away from the court were aware of his close bond with those players.

Some of the players were Hoffman's special education students. Others came from single-parent families and adopted Hoffman as a father-figure, which is why they struggled to understand why their coach had taken another job.

"When I first met with them last summer, one of them wouldn't look at me the whole time I talked," Cavanaugh said. "When I spoke with the players individually, he got up out of the meeting and walked out."

Cavanaugh understands the players' loyalty to Hoffman. The coaches are good friends, and Cavanaugh thinks Hoffman is one of the county's finest coaches.

"They (Western players) will never be 'my guys' " Cavanaugh said. "They'll always be Greg's guys to the core. I'm trying to meet them halfway. My whole thing is not to strive for perfection, but to get them to improve.

"I've always enjoyed the kids I've coached. I don't know if it's a lack of competitiveness, but I've always enjoyed working with them more than winning. That's why it's so hard with the distance I have with this group. I can deal with it, though. It's part of coaching."

Cavanaugh's approach to coaching is different from Hoffman's hard-nosed, get-it-right-at-all-costs approach. Much different.

Hoffman screamed at his players during practices and games, often getting more out of them than any other coach could. Cavanaugh is more low key.

Hoffman's players usually shaved their heads. Cavanaugh's don't.

"I think the players' perception of me is that I'm not tough," Cavanaugh said.

"My concept of discipline is that everything in life is a decision that you have to make. I can't control you. I can't tell you that you have to wear your hair an inch from your head. But what I can tell you is to keep a neat appearance, and that choice is up to the player."

Cavanaugh also enforced some rules--no profanity and no fighting. Not during practice. Not during games. Not anywhere.

"These kids would swear every time they would breathe," he said. "And on the first day of practice, a kid missed a layup and one of his teammates came over and took a swing at him. That's sick.

"But the kids said to me, 'That's us, that's who we are.' But that's not who they are. They can have enthusiasm and intensity without swearing and fighting.

"And I never swear at them. I told them, 'If you don't do what I want, you'll sit on the bench. I won't swear at you, but you will sit.' "

Players have trouble understanding that just because their coach doesn't yell at them, he still cares. He often tells them there's more than one way to accomplish something, and that they can get his message in a regular tone of voice.

And so far, they've listened.

The Pioneers are 8-1, winning with an outstanding defense that had become the team's trademark under Hoffman. They have held opponents to an average 40 points a game, giving up 61 to Edison in their only loss.

Floyd has been outstanding offensively, averaging in the upper teens and becoming a team leader.

Then there's the player who wouldn't look Cavanaugh in the eye, the one who walked out of their first meeting. He stuck with the team, starts, and even talks to his new coach now and then.

Hoffman's presence is still felt at Western. But Cavanaugh, and the players, have learned to deal with it.

"These kids are fantastic players," Cavanaugh said. "We're not 8-1 right now because I'm a great coach. It's because Hoffman taught them to compete."

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