THE COLLEGES / FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ : Ventura Exposed for Power It Is


Lesson No. 1: Be cautious when Philip Mathews, the extraordinarily successful Ventura College men’s basketball coach and master of the understatement, tries to downgrade his teams.

Take that with a sizable chunk of salt.

Lesson No. 2: Believe Mathews when he outright anoints his team with praise. Especially early in the season.

That one you can take to the bank.

Even if he backpedals later with one of his patented “we didn’t play very well tonight” discourses, sad face and all, after another victory that wasn’t smooth enough, convincing enough.


Don’t ever fall for that one.

Because, in essence, that’s nothing more than a motivational ploy Mathews uses to remind his players never to let down their guard, never to be pleased with their effort no matter how splendid.

It has worked before and it is working now.

Just look at this season’s Pirates.

They are off to a resounding start, with 13 victories in as many games and have systematically destroyed most of their opponents. It’s wham, bam, here comes another slam.

They have scored 100 or more points eight times, including their first five games, and are averaging 99.8 points. They have won three tournaments. They came within three points of tying the school’s single-game scoring record in a 132-58 victory against Compton on Nov. 25.

After opening the season with a modest No. 6 ranking in the state, the Pirates are now at the top.

So what’s the big deal?

This bunch was supposed to be greener than Stanley Roberts after one pizza too many.

Ten of the 12 men on the roster had never played at this level. They are freshmen. Not the redshirt types that Mathews occasionally keeps around so they can learn the program and get their academics in order before dressing for a real game, but the true thing straight from high school.

And the two sophomores are virtually new too. One, 6-foot-3 guard Willie West, played sporadically last season. The other, 6-2 guard Lance Fay, redshirted after transferring from Oxnard.


Yet the Pirates are playing like they’ve been together for years. Their fast break is like a flash, their game-long full-court press debilitates and eventually breaks opponents, and their work under the boards is relentless.

They operate in two five-man units that Mathews calls the “Orange and Black” teams and that he rotates in and out of games.

Much of the glory so far belongs to former Santa Clara High standout Damien Cantrell and several out-of-state imports, including forward Hakeen Ward (13.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game) from New Jersey, center Curtis Ganes (12.8 and 7.3) from Chicago and forward Gerald Zimmerman (11.2 points) from Lakeland, Fla. All are 6-6, and Ward and Ganes are powerfully built.

Cantrell, a forward, is averaging 11.0 points and 9.8 rebounds. Fay (10.5 points) and point guards Rafer Alston (7.0 assists) and Jamal Cobbs (6.7 assists) take good care of the backcourt.

As a group, they have immense ability, perhaps more than the two Ventura teams that were 73-5 the past two seasons and reached the State title game both times but lost.

Those were more methodical clubs that played within more rigidly defined parameters, and often rode the coattails of forward Brandon Jessie, the State co-player of the year last season who is now making his mark at Utah.


This is a team with all the components to go far, maybe even win it all. The Pirates have speed, shooting, depth. About the only thing lacking is experience and may the basketball gods have mercy on Ventura’s opponents when this group matures. Think about it. These guys will be together for two seasons.

When Jessie and the others departed, some wondered how long the rebuilding would take. But Mathews doesn’t think in those terms. His approach is to reload. Quickly.

There’s no doubt the Ventura holster is packed. Mathews knew before the season he had another powerhouse and gleefully outlined his team’s strengths. He said it was well-rounded and he was right.

But he also cagily predicted the Pirates would finish no better than third place in the Western State Conference North Division, a division they have won eight consecutive seasons.

Right, Phil. Like we haven’t been paying attention in class.