THE COLLEGES / FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ : Ventura Isn't Carrying Inflated Expectations

Throughout the game, the balloons rested in a large net above midcourt, waiting for a tug of the cord that would send them toward a jubilant throng below.

Some were orange, some black and some white. They sat there, in the Ventura College school colors, tightly pressed against each other and immovable.

And, for a while, that's how it seemed they would stay.

The Pirates were struggling at home against Chaffey in the first half of their Southern California men's regional basketball game on Saturday, the last obstacle to overcome on the road to the state championships.

Then came the trademark Pirate rallies and that was that: Ventura 83, Chaffey 75. It wasn't another blowout victory but nobody expected one. To those dancing and cheering on the court as balloons rained on their heads, the score didn't matter much.

Now, the Pirates will try not to let their balloons pop at the Final Eight tournament that starts today and concludes Saturday at the UC Irvine Bren Events Center.

It has happened before. Twice. Back to back.

The first time was two years ago. The Pirates arrived at the University of San Francisco with a 35-1 record and the top billing in the state. They were expected to sweep three games. Columbia, however, brought an industrial-size broom and brushed Ventura aside in the title game, 97-88.

Last year, the venue changed to Irvine and the Pirates seemed poised to win it all. They were 34-2, had won 29 consecutive games during one stretch, and were ranked No. 1 in the state. The team had eight sophomores. How do you spell C-H-A-M-P-I-O-N-S? Ask Long Beach, because it took home the trophy with a 63-61 victory over the Pirates in the championship game.

Actually, Ventura's frustrations reach back to 1992, when the Pirates were eliminated in the state semifinals by Cerritos, the eventual champion. But the defeats that really hurt were over the last two years. Those Ventura teams were loaded. Their personnel was balanced, with almost equal parts freshmen and sophomores.

But what about this team, the one that will face Fresno City (26-10) in the quarterfinals tonight at 8, the one with 10 freshmen and only three sophomores--two of them in their first season in a Ventura uniform, the one that marched into battle in November with all that raw talent but was dangerously short on experience?

These Pirates are young but hardly innocent. They are 34-1. They finished No. 1 in the state and they are looking mighty tough again after losing to Cuesta last month. That loss ended a 29-game winning streak that tied the school single-season record and served as a reality check that Coach Philip Mathews admitted the team needed badly.

Something about swollen heads and bloated egos, Mathews said.

Their cockiness is now apparently under control. They have a new hunger in their eyes and they could succeed where the last three Ventura teams failed.

For one thing, they won't have the pressure, the urgency to win that last year's team had. Those Pirates expected to win. They needed to win. It meant redemption after the Frisco fiasco. It was the last chance for the sophomores.

Only one current player, reserve guard Willie West, was there to shed the tears last year. The others never lived the agony. And that could make the difference this time. No unfinished business to handle. No fear of crashing and burning without the possibility of "Wait 'til next year."

Yes, this group knows all about the Ventura mystique. They are aware of the state title the Pirates won in 1987, in the team's second season under Mathews. They realize that despite those recent disappointments, no other school has participated in all the state championships since 1992. They have been reminded of that lately by former players who call or stop by the school. It's in their consciousness, make no mistake about it.

But this is a team with its own identity. This is a team that matured quicker than Mathews anticipated and that values the winning tradition at Ventura every bit as much as all the clubs before.

This is a team that won't let balloons just hang from the rafters.

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