VENTURA'S BAYWATCH : Five players follow Coach Mathews to University of San Francisco

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gerald Zimmerman, the one they call Pops, took the plunge at the risk of being called nuts.

The same with Damian Cantrell, Jamal Cobbs, Hakeem Ward and Charles Woodard.

All had seen, lived, felt the fiery coaching style of Philip Mathews at Ventura College. Yet they wanted to play basketball again for the man, this time at the University of San Francisco.

To some, that kind of thinking would require time with a shrink.

But these guys are neither crazy nor foolish. For them, they say, it was a simple decision.

"Coach Mathews is not going to change, so you just have to adjust to him," Zimmerman said. "The guys who played for him at Ventura know he ain't changing. But coach is not a problem."

Welcome to the San Francisco annex of Ventura men's basketball, or Ventura by the Bay, or the Pirates of Telegraph Hill.

Any of those monikers fit this season's Dons, who start West Coast Conference play with games at Loyola Marymount tonight at 7 and at Pepperdine on Saturday at 5 p.m.

With Mathews coaching and the five former Ventura players on the roster, three of them starters, the Dons (5-7) have a distinctive new flavor that has nothing to do with Rice-A-Roni.

The Dons, once a formidable outfit that produced NBA greats Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, are in their second season under Mathews, who guided Ventura to 298 victories and two state championships during his 10-season tenure.

Soon after arriving in San Francisco, Mathews started erecting a recruiting bridge to Ventura. He got Ward, the junior college state co-player of the year as a freshman in 1994-95, to commit early, and roped in the others when they completed their two-year stint at Ventura last season.

The five were part of Ventura teams that played in packed gyms and were hardly tested, winning consecutive state titles, first under Mathews and last season under Virgil Watson.

They were 37-1 as freshmen and 34-2 as sophomores. They smoothly executed Mathews' up-tempo, aggressive style and looked like natural choices for San Francisco.

"They know how to win, they know my system," said Mathews, who led the Dons to a 15-12 record last season. "It's easier to recruit guys that you know. When you can get guys like that in one swoop, that's not bad."

But although the Ventura Five have shined at times, Mathews said their transition to Division I has been labored, even painful.

For instance, Woodard, a 6-foot-6 forward from Canyon High, played only 26 minutes over five games and is using a medical redshirt year to nurse a knee injury.

Mathews said the former Pirates have the talent to play at that level but their stiffest challenge has been facing good players every night.

"They came in thinking it would be easier than it is," Mathews said. "We've lost seven games and that's more than they lost in their whole careers [at Ventura]."

Ward, a 6-6 forward, has made the biggest impact.

He leads the Dons in scoring at 14.8 points per game, has scored in double figures the past nine games and has been particularly efficient in the second half of games, averaging 9.3 points. His best output was 26 points in a 93-76 loss to Rhode Island on Dec. 29.

"Hakeem has been the most consistent, scoring-wise, but there are other parts of his game that need to improve, such as rebounding," Mathews said.

Said Ward: "We've been practicing like crazy hard. We've been focusing on defense. . . . [Mathews] makes me work harder on my defense in practice."

Mathews doesn't have to push Cantrell to do the same.

The 6-6 forward from Santa Clara High, the first man off the bench for the Dons, is second in rebounding in the WCC with a 7.4 average and has three double-doubles, including 10 points and 15 rebounds in a 77-63 loss to Arkansas on Nov. 30.

"He's going to do all the little things to help you win," Mathews said of Cantrell. "He knows what his role is and he wants to do it."

Cobbs was sharing time at point guard with freshman Dony Wilcher before a bulging disk forced Wilcher to take a medical redshirt. Now Cobbs, 5-9, is averaging a team-high 32.5 minutes. His 51.4% shooting from the field tops the team and is eighth-best in the WCC.

Zimmerman, a 6-6 forward who recently became a starter, is averaging 8.6 points and trying to make adjustments, on the floor and elsewhere.

"It takes some getting used to," said Zimmerman, a sociology major. "You are at an institution where they put a lot of emphasis on education. . . . I haven't really had a chance to explore the city yet. Basketball and school take up all the time."

But none of them is complaining, least of all Ward.

"Playing for Coach Mathews is what I wanted to do," Ward said. "This is a hard-working league and it'll make my game much better night in and night out.

"I like it here. The atmosphere is like at Ventura. But I'm still trying to get a fix on the weather."

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