So Far, Keefe's Boat Is on Course

Capt. Keefe, formerly of the Winchester Boat Club, two-time winner of the Wood Trophy in the two-man age-group regatta, has been a landlubber for six years now, most recently anchored in inland Orange County.

He admits he hasn't been on the water "since the seventh grade," even though Newport Bay beckons mere miles away and his sister, Stephanie, a sailing writer and enthusiast, lives in the area.

"I've been begging my sister to take me out one time," he says. "Maybe this summer."

But not until then.

Not unless Stephanie has a boat customized for him. Paint a red three-point arc on the deck, maybe. Tack a hoop and net 10 feet up the mast. Give the little brother a little extra incentive to step on board.

Otherwise, if the sun is shining and the wind is whispering and the waves are lapping, Brian Keefe can be found passing his leisure hours indoors, on the floor of the Bren Center, honing his craft, doing what he can to right a ship of another kind--a ship that was presumed lost at sea, really, until Keefe took command last October.

Before then, the UC Irvine basketball program had not experienced a winning season since 1987-88 and had not finished higher than fifth in its conference since 1985-86. In the previous six seasons, Irvine had won 52 basketball games and lost 121.

Do the division.

Average record for Irvine during those six seasons: 9-20.

Bad players? That's always the handy excuse, but at Irvine, it would be flagrantly untrue. Last season, the Anteaters had the best guard in the Big West, Raimonds Miglinieks, and the best freshman, Kevin Simmons, and still finished eighth at 6-12, 13-15 overall. Those Anteaters were a team without direction, without an axis, too often replacing Cal State Fullerton or Long Beach State as their own worst enemies.

That is one reason Irvine Coach Rod Baker named Keefe, a 19-year-old sophomore, team captain last fall.

There are at least a thousand more, if anyone cares to count the shots Keefe attempts every off-season day during one of his private six-hour workouts.

"I shoot 1,000, maybe 1,500 shots a day during the off-season," Keefe estimates. "I don't keep track, but I know it's a lot."

During the season, Keefe cuts back to "an hour to and hour-and-a-half a day. But that's because we're either practicing or playing a game every day."

Hadn't this sort of gym rat, circa 1996, been exterminated?

Haven't we all seen the plummeting field-goal percentages and read the "Why Can't Johnny Shoot Anymore?" essays and concluded that kids today just don't want to practice, so they don't?

Keefe was a cup-winning sailor and an all-league midfielder back home in Winchester, Mass., but he hung up his deck shoes at 13, his soccer boots at 16 and became a one-sport, two-high top man thereafter--devoting himself entirely to the lonely pursuit of the perfect jump shot.

"The year I quit soccer," Keefe says, "our team [Winchester High] only lost one game, in the semifinals. The rest of the team was really mad at me--'We'd have won it all if we had you.' But I had to concentrate on basketball. I needed to work on my game year-round."

Clearly a special case, Keefe was quick to impress Baker, who figured Keefe's work ethic was the proper example to set around the Bren Center. So Keefe became Capt. Keefe a week into fall practice--at 19, one of the youngest captains of a Division I basketball program in the country.

Still a month shy of his 20th birthday, Keefe has guided Irvine into waters the Anteaters haven't charted in a decade. With Keefe leading the team in scoring at 16.6 points per game--20.8 over the last 11 games--Irvine placed second in the Big West for the first time since 1985-86 and finished a regular season with a winning record (15-11) for the first time in five seasons under Baker.

Suddenly, the great underachievers lead the league in individual achievement. Tuesday, Miglinieks was named Big West player of the year, Baker was chosen Big West coach of the year, Keefe and Simmons were named to the all-conference second team and Clay McKnight made the all-freshman team. It was an Anteater windfall, a great day in Irvine hoops history, and Baker marked the occasion by refusing to be interviewed for this story. Some people just know how to party.

It is generally helpful to have a coach's perspective, though, so a phone call was placed to Vince O'Boyle. O'Boyle coaches track and field at UC Irvine, but no matter--he attends Anteater basketball games on a regular basis, knows Keefe when he sees him and was available for comment.

Last week, O'Boyle said, "I wanted to talk with one of my athletes, and it started raining, so we went inside the Bren Center and sat in the top of the stands. We're talking about upcoming races and meets when, all of a sudden, we hear a basketball bouncing.

"At first, I'm thinking, 'Oh, that must be the guys coming out for practice.' But I look down and there's only one person. Sure enough, it was Keefe, at the far end of the gym, shooting around by himself.

"One of the things I thought was, 'That probably explains why he's done as well as he has this year.' Obviously, he's stepped it up a notch from where he was a year ago. He's certainly not the same player he was last year."

Between then and now, Keefe has added 11 points to his scoring average, 10 pounds to his wiry frame ("I still need to put on 10 more") and five victories to Irvine's final Big West total.

Saturday, he and the Anteaters prepare to take the next step, an unprecedented step--an NCAA playoff berth--when they face either San Jose State or the University of the Pacific in the Big West tournament semifinals.

"People on campus come up to me all the time and say, 'You know, making the NCAAs would be good for the school. It would really pick UC Irvine up,' " Keefe says.

"We want to be the first ones. We've already beaten every team in the [Big West] tournament this year--Long Beach, Nevada, Pacific, San Jose. That should be enough motivation to beat these teams two more times."

What Keefe is saying is that the Anteaters know the way. Now it's up to Capt. Keefe, young old salt that he is, to get this five-man regatta in gear.

Mission: Set sail from Reno Saturday and, if the wind holds, land at a sub-regional by Thursday.

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