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FIVE TO WATCH IN 1995 : Sure, they were impressive in 1994. They worked hard, they played hard, they coached their way to success. But just wait until this year, when these people show what they can do. : PHILIP MATHEWS : Coach Is Drawing a Crowd

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He has become almost a cult figure.

People flock to him after games, the admiration painted on their faces. Others more tightly associated with the man slip in and out of his office ceremoniously.

Wherever Philip Mathews goes in the Ventura College gym after the Pirates have dismantled another outmatched opponent, it’s not a direct line he follows. There are hands to shake and laughter to share.

But Mathews doesn’t mind.

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These are his people, the throngs that fill the Ventura gym to the rafters and follow his every move with anticipation, watching as he orchestrates another performance by the Pirates.

And, besides, Mathews can afford to be gracious. Especially the way his team is playing this season.

Ventura is 18-0 and ranked No. 1 in the state. The Pirates are rolling over everything in their path and already look like state championship material.

This group wasn’t supposed to flourish so fast. They weren’t ready-for-prime-time players. This team features 10 freshmen and only two sophomores.

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But they are quickly turning into possibly the best coaching job Mathews has done since he took over the Ventura program in 1985.

Since he became Ventura’s coach, Mathews has never had a losing season. They Pirates were state champions in 1987 and reached the state title game the past two seasons.

Those teams were more balanced in experience, but Mathews is not worried. He says the Pirates will continue to improve and jell until mid-March rolls around and it’s time for the Final Eight tournament at the UC Irvine Bren Center.

That’s where Mathews plans to be, with plenty of team supporters nearby, making another run at the championship. And he might just pull it off the one year that Ventura wasn’t even supposed to be there.

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