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The Speaker of the House : Vocal Point Guard Escamilla, Santa Paula Campaigning Hard to Unseat Powerful Santa Clara

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Manuel Escamilla is the last player to arrive at the gym for a recent practice, a rarity for the point guard and emotional leader of the Santa Paula High boys’ basketball team, but he quickly makes up for his tardy arrival.

The senior warms up by showing off his shooting range, flicking three-pointers from far beyond the arc.

Escamilla is the last player to finish stretching. As he sits across the free-throw line, teammates form lines on either side and begin a layup drill. Soon, Escamilla is surrounded by players flying in every direction.

This is one of the few instances Escamilla isn’t galvanizing his teammates into action, but the moment doesn’t last.

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Escamilla tightens his shoelaces and races to the front of the shooting line. Within five minutes the shirt under his practice jersey is drenched with sweat. Escamilla sprints to the sideline to remove his shirt and jumps back to the front of the line.

“Manuel is never lazy,” Coach Tom Donahue said. “He’s always working hard in practice and in games.”

The Cardinals, 14-1 and 2-0 in league play, have enjoyed modest success in recent seasons, with four consecutive second-place finishes in the Frontier League and a berth in the quarterfinals of the Southern Section Division III-A playoffs in 1994.

But Escamilla and Donahue expect more this season. Escamilla starts with four other seniors, teammates who have played together since junior high.

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Santa Paula raced through its nonleague schedule with a 12-1 record and three tournament championships.

The only blemish was a two-point loss to Hart on the road after a five-day layoff.

The Cardinals began Frontier League play by routing league-newcomer Malibu, then Nordhoff. Now, the real test awaits. On Tuesday night, the Cardinals will challenge Santa Clara’s 86-game league winning streak that began in 1985.

“We’ve had a great start but we expected to do this well . . . we haven’t really accomplished anything yet,” Escamilla said. “This is the game we’ve been preparing for.”

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If the Cardinals are to end a decade of suffering for all Frontier rivals, teammates will look to Escamilla for inspiration and motivation.

Besides being the top player on the team (Escamilla was named Frontier League player of the year in 1994 along with seniors Damian Cantrell of Santa Clara and Mark Sebek of Nordhoff), he’s the outspoken spark plug who ignites the Cardinals.

“We’re going to need him to get us pumped up,” teammate Ben Tryk said. “We’ll be fired up but he’ll make sure.”

Escamilla is quick to congratulate a teammate on a good play. But his emotional nature backfires occasionally when teammates don’t perform up to his expectations.

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He admits to yelling and getting angry at his teammates when they make mistakes, even to the point of getting in a player’s face.

“We know that’s just Manuel,” Center Danny Herrera said. “We’ve all played together since junior high and that’s just his emotion coming out. By now, it helps get our confidence up instead of down.”

Teammates adjusted to Escamilla’s competitive nature through a busy summer season, including a week at a UCLA basketball camp in July.

During the day, the Cardinals played games and listened to guest speakers; by night they played pool and talked about the upcoming season.

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“It gave us a chance to get away from Santa Paula and concentrate on basketball,” Escamilla said. “We took advantage and worked together.”

Escamilla has been the Cardinals’ vocal leader on the court since he joined the varsity as a shooting guard as a sophomore. But this season, Donahue turned over the natural leadership role at the point to Escamilla as well.

Entering a game Friday night against Nordhoff he was averaging 17.4 points and 4.8 assists. He had connected on 41 of 66 attempts (62.1%) from three-point range, clearly indicating the change in position hasn’t dimmed his shooting touch.

At 6-foot-1 1/2 and 185 pounds, Escamilla towers over most point guards in Ventura County. The height advantage allows him to view opposing defenses better and distribute the ball more effectively.

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But Escamilla prides himself on his defense.

“We play a man defense most of the time,” he said. “Even when we’re running through an opposing team’s offense in practice, I usually assume I’m going to be the guy to guard the best player.”

In the final of the Santa Paula tournament last month against Newbury Park, Escamilla targeted Panther guard Brent Bush, who scored 28 points in a semifinal.

Santa Paula scored the first 12 points and Bush was held to 12 as the Cardinals rolled to an 84-66 victory.

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“People who watch Manuel tend to look at his offensive skills and overlook his defense,” Donahue said. “But he’s very physical for a point guard and can handle anybody.”

Donahue hears people try to compare Escamilla with Joey Ramirez, a Pepperdine junior and former Santa Paula and Ventura College point guard.

“They both were very good players but Manuel is a much-more-physical player,” Donahue said.

“Joey was a quiet leader. Manuel is definitely not quiet.”

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Escamilla nearly let his temperament get the best of him at a young age. In fifth grade, his emotional, competitive nature turned to rebellion. He was an unruly youngster at school.

Escamilla had been living with his mother but his grandparents appealed to the family of a friend on a youth baseball team. Arnie and Connie Richman took Escamilla into their home and he still lives with his “second family.” He still sees his natural parents, who live in Santa Paula and attend some of his games.

“He had to make some adjustments at first, but he has worked real hard to get to where he is,” Connie Richman said.

“He made a positive decision with what he wanted to do with his life.”

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By his sophomore year he quit soccer and football to concentrate on the sport that might earn him a college scholarship.

He has had contact with several NCAA Division I schools, including Utah, UC Santa Barbara and San Francisco.

But Escamilla will wait until after the season to worry about college. He’s currently trying to give his team an emotional lift for Tuesday night and the rest of the season.

“We’re going to have to be mentally focused the entire game to beat Santa Clara,” he said. “This is the game most people around here care about.

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“This season won’t mean much if we can’t beat them.”


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