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Moving Ahead by Stepping Back : Basketball: John Molle, who now plays for Saddleback College, views his Division I experience at San Diego State last season as incentive to get back.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Molle rattles off a long list of things he liked about playing Division I basketball at San Diego State.

He can go on at great length about the rush that comes from playing in front of crowds as large as 18,000. He remembers the plane trips to places such as Utah, Wyoming and Hawaii, even though they didn’t get to spend much time in the islands. The thing he liked best was the camaraderie that came from spending long hours on the road with his teammates.

But because of some academic troubles and a coaching change, Molle has returned to his Irvine home and is playing for nearby Saddleback College.

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Molle, who went to Irvine High, looks at the positives of his Division I experience as an incentive to get back.

But for now, he is dealing with the “step back” to community college, where 200 fans is a good-sized crowd, Riverside is considered a long trip, and he sees his teammates at practice and games and seldom anywhere else.

But Molle, a 6-foot-4 guard, didn’t come to Saddleback expecting to be so much better than the opposition that he would average 30 points a game.

“It didn’t go through my mind,” he said. “People kept telling me what I was thinking, like that I would come to the JC level and dominate.

“But the only thing I was thinking about was having a good year as a team, and my main goal was to improve my grades.”

Molle averaged 28 points and helped Irvine reach the Southern Section I-A quarterfinals as a senior in 1991. He was an All-Southern Section pick and signed to attend San Diego State mainly because he wanted to stay close to his family.

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Molle was recruited by several other Division I programs, including USC, and never considered going to a community college out of high school. “It’s a level I never thought I would see,” he said.

But his experience at San Diego State wasn’t the best.

The Aztecs suffered through a 2-26 season, and Jim Brandenburg was replaced as coach by Tony Fuller last spring.

Many assume the coaching change was the main reason Molle skipped town, but it was only a small part.

He was on academic probation and said he left in an effort to improve his grades. He was also looking forward to getting back home.

In fact, Molle was ready to terminate his Division I career almost before it started.

After the first practice at SDSU, he said he was seriously thinking about leaving because of the negative atmosphere. But he talked it over with his teammates and decided to give it a chance.

Molle got more playing time than most freshmen, starting seven games and averaging four points.

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Once he officially left San Diego in July, he said he didn’t consider going to another Division I program because he wanted to spend a year getting his academics in order. Once it was known he was going to play locally, he was the subject of a recruiting battle between Irvine Valley, Rancho Santiago and Saddleback.

He also considered Ventura, where former Edison player Brandon Jessie is, but settled on Saddleback because he felt most comfortable with the moderate-tempo offense run by Coach Bill Brummel.

Molle also had played for Saddleback assistant Tom McCluskey in the Orange County all-star game. At the time, McCluskey was coaching at Tustin High.

“It’s fun here,” Molle said. “Sometimes I give the coaches the evil eye, but I’m listening to them. They don’t think so, but I am. That’s how you show respect, by listening to the coaches. We didn’t have that at San Diego.”

Molle figured to play off-guard at Saddleback, but injuries to Josh Borella (back) and Andre Craig (knee) have forced him to play point much of the time.

Molle said he enjoys the challenge, and he is averaging a team-best 16.5 points for the Gauchos.

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“We sure would like to see John play his natural position,” Brummel said. “But things are going pretty well. He sees the court really well and has had no trouble adjusting.”

Molle hopes his success this season will earn him another Division I opportunity.

“I have no regrets,” he said. “I’m always going to miss playing before those crowds. Just that feeling before games, that’s what I miss. . . . But once the ball goes up, it’s like playing five on five in the park.”

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