Tom Donahue arrived at Santa Paula High in 1990 with a reputation.
The boys' basketball coach had rebuilt two struggling high school programs in Pennsylvania. And Santa Paula certainly qualified as a program in the dumps when Donahue showed up. The Cardinals had won three Frontier League games in the previous five seasons.
But Santa Paula succeeded
under Donahue. A pair of talented guards, Joey Ramirez (1991-92) and Manuel Escamilla (1993-95), kept the Cardinals in playoff contention, but they couldn't bring Santa Paula a league championship.
Not with league powerhouse Santa Clara around, anyway.
Donahue, 38, arrived at the zenith of the Saints' dominance. Santa Clara won the Division IV state title in 1991 and would eventually win 91 consecutive league games, the second-longest streak in Southern Section history.
But with five senior starters, including Escamilla, the 1994-95 season was the breakthrough year Donahue, The Times' Valley Coach of the Year, and Santa Paula had been waiting for.
And the brightest moment came last month, when the Cardinals ended Santa Clara's winning streak at 91 games with a 52-49 victory.
The Cardinals finished with a 23-3 record; the three losses were by a total of four points. Not even a premature exit from the Southern Section Division III-A playoffs could dampen the success of the season.
"The anticipation for that game was incredible," Donahue said. "We tried not to think about the streak but I did emphasize, if you wanted to win the league, Santa Clara's the team you have to go through."
The memory of Santa Paula's final game of the season, a double-overtime loss to Duarte in the Southern Section III-A quarterfinals, will stay with Donahue.
After the game, Donahue hugged and thanked each of his senior starters: Escamilla, Ben Tryk, Dan Herrera, Chris Canon and Teva Johnson.
"I liked being around those guys. No, actually, I loved them," Donahue said. "I hope 15 years from now we can get together with their wives and their kids and talk about what a great time we had."