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This Blue-Collar Program Finds a Cave Worth Calling Home

Mike Smith is getting hoarse shouting, “40 seconds . . . 35 seconds . . . 30 seconds . . .”

Jennifer Duke is getting tired lugging a bucket onto the court to catch that leak.

And the crowd is getting anxious. “Are we ahead?” one student hollers. “I think we’re up by one,” another screams.

Welcome to the Huntington Beach Claremont High School Athletic and Convocation Center, that all-in-one, multipurpose facility. Tonight, it’s basketball. Tomorrow, lunch.

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It’s a venue for the stars, some you could almost see until they patched the holes in the roof. Most of the holes anyway.

There are those who may call it an old, worn-out warehouse barely fit for human occupation. The Cougars call it home. Actually, they call it The Cave . Yeah, lots of caves have cement floors, drywall and aluminum sheets dangling from the ceiling.

Ah, but a rose by any other name would still smell as musty.

Still, the Cougars play boys’ and girls’ basketball here. Oh, and girls’ volleyball too. They also eat lunch, hold P.E. classes and generally gather in this building. So they can call it what they like.

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Hard to figure out. Do you envy these kids or pity them?

On one hand, it’s the greatest home-court advantage in Orange County--Claremont boys’ team was thumped by Harbor City Gateway Christian on the road, then won by four at home.

On the other hand . . . well, you have to see the place.

Three years ago, the school moved from Garden Grove, renting an abandoned building in an industrial complex. It has been turned into a pretty decent school. Then you see the gym. Once, people manufactured computer components there, now someone has manufactured an athletic arena. It’s a gym by the loosest definition.

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There’s a basketball court, all right. Cement actually, with painted lines mapping out the court.

No clock. No scoreboard. No heat. No way--generally the opposing team’s first reaction. Lunch tables at one end, weightlifting equipment at the other.

The place looks better suited for shuffleboard. But as boys’ Coach George Watson said, “Home is where your home is.”

Indeed.

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“Every team that comes in here says the same thing, ‘This is a gym?’ ” Watson said. “Then we go on the road and our kids get real excited to play on a wood floor. It’s a great motivator.”

Claremont has motivated itself to a 11-6 record this season, going 5-2 at home.

There are some down sides. A couple of students were arguing over whose skin was whiter between verses of Aretha’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” The gym once got a little sunlight, then the maintenance crew had to patch those 15-20 holes after it rained. They got all but one.

So there was Duke on bucket duty--positioning one, not shooting at one--against Gateway. She ran onto the court during timeouts to catch the steady drip. Then back to stats. “My arms are killing me,” she grumbled to Smith, the school’s athletic director.

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Tell it to the Marines, kid. Smith had his own problems, like running a clock that only he could see. A duty that includes the final countdown for each quarter.

To pass time, he has to keep score--flipping plastic number cards. Never mind the numbers didn’t face the stands, which is mostly metal chairs. So Smith spent the evening hollering some more, “We’re up by four.” Not that he minded.

“We try to keep things simple here,” he said. “Simple and fun.”

Oh, it’s fun all right.

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Call it homely, but it’s home to them. Besides . . .

“We’re a blue-collar team,” Watson said.

With a facility to match.


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