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It’s a Small World

‘Day in, day out, jocks talking to jocks about jocks. There must be more to life than this. We’re out expanding our personal horizons. . . . ‘

So goes the answering-machine greeting if Jake Ainsworth, co-athletic director and co-boys’ basketball coach at tiny Oak Grove School in Ojai, is not in his office to pick up the phone.

At Oak Grove, building character is more important than stacking up wins and losses. The opponent is not an enemy.

“We cheer the other team and so do our fans,” Ainsworth said. “When an opposing player tries to shoot a free throw, it’s inconceivable to us that we would try to disrupt his concentration like you see at other places.

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“The officials love coming to our games, ‘cause we’re so friendly.”

Basketball is the sport of choice at schools such as Oak Grove, enrollment 45, which practices outdoors and plays at the Oak View Community Center, because it takes less funding and fewer athletes to field a team.

There are 20 private high schools in the Valley and Ventura County region with fewer than 200 students that compete in the Southern Section. The majority do business on makeshift campuses smaller than many public elementary schools.

Bethel Christian in Lancaster took over what used to be a church. Ventura County Christian inhabits an old YMCA building. Landmark West is tucked away in a wealthy residential neighborhood in Encino. Antelope Valley Christian is a cluster of bungalows that seem to spring from the surrounding desert sand and shrub.

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Most such schools were founded by religious organizations and they depend on students who are drawn to alternative curricula.

At Valley Torah, students spend about half their 11-hour days studying Judaism. Ojai Valley challenges its students with outdoor survival classes. Highland Hall requires its students to write text books.

Oak Grove was founded by the late Krishnamurti, an educator and philosopher from India who resided in Ojai for several years. Krishnamurti’s imprint remains strong.

“We’re trying to instill a sensitivity toward the environment,” said Ainsworth, who last week led a group of students on a four-day backpacking trek.

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Added Jeff Oterbein, who shares athletic director duties with Ainsworth: “For sports programs, we look at the question of what does competition do for you and to you. Does sports get in the way of dealing with other people in a humane fashion?”

Oak Grove’s goal for athletic decorum might be a little extreme, but most small schools share a similar mission statement in athletics: Strive to win, but not at the expense of sportsmanship.

“We want to be as competitive as we can and we want to honor Christ,” said Tim Shaffer, athletic director at Simi Valley Grace Brethren. “In doing so, there’s no reason why we can’t win championships.”

These schools weren’t organized to win athletic championships, even with tuition that ranges $2,500-$24,000 per student. Money for athletics is limited. Only six of the schools have gymnasiums.

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What they lack in facilities, they make up for in spirit.

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Cornerstone Christian had to rent Camarillo High for its Southern Section Division V-A game Tuesday night against top-seeded Santa Maria Valley Christian, but the Eagles and their fans made themselves right at home.

The silver and blue trim inside the Camarillo gym was replaced with Cornerstone’s black and gold. Placards and posters dotted the walls with phrases like “We’re Proud” and “It’s All Good.”

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From the opening tipoff, a woman wearing black jeans and a white T-shirt can’t sit still. She is on the edge of her seat yelling, “Pressure! Pressure!”

Troy Busher, the Eagles 5-foot-5 senior guard, responds by slapping the palms of his hands on the floor to get ready for defense.

Moments later, when Busher makes an 18-foot jump shot to cut what was a 10-point deficit to one at the end of the first quarter, more than 300 fans bang on the wooden bleachers and fill the gym with the roar of a capacity crowd.

Steve Carter, a wispy 6-foot senior guard, scores 16 points in the first half and Cornerstone runs off the court tied, 35-35, against a Santa Maria team that won its previous playoff game by 80 points.

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Tension builds as Cornerstone and Santa Maria play to an 89-89 tie in regulation. An elderly man emerges from the visiting side and verbally scolds the timekeeper.

“Hey! You don’t belong here,” yells Cornerstone Coach David Deutsch, who is a pastor at Grace Reformed Baptist Church in Ventura. “Get back up in the stands.”

That’s about as heated as the exchanges usually get at these games.

Cornerstone loses in overtime, 103-94, despite getting 44 points, 13 rebounds, 10 steals and nine assists from Carter.

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Championships and playoff appearances are secondary, said Dennis Deutsch, 25, the Cornerstone athletic director who wears a surfer cap and sandals and looks like he could be a member of the senior class. The coach’s younger brother is encouraged.

“David’s team goal is, ‘Remember your testimony,’ ” Dennis Deutsch said. “Secondary, get out there and win.”

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Some schools don’t have enough players to run a five-on-five scrimmage in practice because of their tiny enrollments. Grace Brethren, for example, has only two boys in its senior class. Talent is thin. Many players lack height, fundamental skills and game experience.

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Occasionally, a small school will hit the jackpot, as did Cornerstone Christian this year when Carter transferred from nearby Camarillo.

It was a rare move. The best small-circuit players usually migrate in the opposite direction.

Some noteworthy talents have passed through these tiny halls in years past.

Cornerstone’s Ryan Lilegran scored 62 points in one game, a Ventura County record. Valley Torah’s Yaacov Weisman averaged 16.2 rebounds per game, which led the Southern Section. Highland Hall’s David White averaged 38 points one season.

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But the only small-schools player from the region to make a successful transition to a major college in recent years is Cincinnati starting guard Charles Williams. Williams played his senior season at Antelope Valley Christian, averaging 30 points, after transferring from Manual Arts.

Carter, a 6-foot senior guard who averages 26.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and six steals, switched schools so he could get more playing time. He has become the focal point of the Cornerstone offense.

“At Camarillo, my role was to dish it to Josh Hill [now at Navy] and Joe Borchard,” Carter said. “Here, they dish it to me.”

Cornerstone is better known for its girls’ team, which reached the section championship game last year and is poised for a repeat appearance.

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The Eagles’ boys (13-9) qualified for the Division V-A playoffs, along with Antelope Valley Christian (10-12), Bethel Christian (9-14), Grace Brethren (14-8), Landmark West (15-6), Santa Clarita Christian (11-10) and West Valley Christian (7-11).

Holy Martyrs (15-11) and Valley Torah (10-10) qualified for the Division V-AA tournament.

Demirdjian (15-6), which finished second in the Valley League, was a shoo-in for the playoffs, but Eddy Atamian, who coaches the boys and girls, withdrew both teams. According to Atamian, it’s better to end on a positive note than to go on the road and get blown out.

“One year against Montclair Prep, we lost by 70 points,” Atamian said.

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The road to the playoffs is easier for Demirdjian than most of the others, because it has a gym.

The Titans built their own gym three years ago. That means they no longer have to dodge cars while practicing in the parking lot.

Many of the 14 schools that don’t have gyms practice on blacktop. For games, they must bid for floor time at recreation centers that have no bleachers--some of them nowhere near campus.

Highland Hall players commute more than 12 miles from Northridge to the Stonehurst Recreation Center in Sun Valley to practice. Drive time can be 30 minutes in heavy traffic.

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Hawk senior guard Taman Van Scoy didn’t let the inconvenience stop him. He averaged more than 30 points per game the past two seasons.

“It was a hassle,” Van Scoy said. “I didn’t enjoy it. But it was a lot better than playing outside.”

Many of the rented gyms were built for multipurpose use and have their own hazards. For example, the court is carpeted at Pleasant Valley Baptist gym, surrogate home of Cornerstone Christian.

“It’s a pretty cheesy gym,” Carter said. “I’ve got scars from rug burns.”

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Viewpoint players have shivered through many winter practices because their gym has a metal roof and no heating.

“It’s like a shed,” Patriot Coach Mark Condon said. “And when we can see our breath, we call practice early.”

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The most interesting setting is at Holy Martyrs in Encino, where the gym floor appears as a courtyard, surrounded and overlooked by second-story classrooms. Fans in the Armens’ gym have an aerial view and can lean over the railing of an upstairs balcony and touch the backboards.

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And they don’t have to yell at opposing players to get their attention. How about that for home-court advantage?

“I’ve seen other players get frustrated, and most of them because of our fans,” Armen guard Vicken Ohanian said. “We give them competition, and there’s always excitement from the fans.”

Holy Martyrs has no cheerleaders, but the parents lead chants like “Let’s go, Armens.” Players must not only contend with the opponent, but the snack bar just beyond the East baseline. More than one player has landed head first in the poppy seed cake while chasing a loose ball.

Coutin and Landmark West, which usually draw fewer than 15 fans at home games, are two schools that lack support where it is perhaps needed most.

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Landmark West is a school for students with learning disabilities, and Coach Robert Calderon must adapt to each player’s needs in teaching the game. Calderon doesn’t mind the extra effort he must make. Indeed, he started the program.

“And athletics breeds school spirit the most,” Calderon said. “It gives kids a sense of being a high school. And that’s important particularly for the boys, who otherwise might think they’re just going to a retard school. This is not a retard school.”

The Lions have been the best team nobody has seen. Junior center Matt Boylan averaged 25 points and 10 rebounds and Landmark finished the regular season 10 games over .500. But with students coming from various parts of greater Los Angeles and afternoon home games being played at Balboa Park, the Lions rarely attract more than 15 fans.

Coutin Coach Barry Weiner works with students who have severe emotional problems. In Weiner’s eyes, the Knights notch a victory every time they take the court.

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“A lot of the kids live in group homes, and I’m amazed that we can field a team,” he said. “You never know what you’ll get each day. One day a kid will be very up. The next day he’ll talk about quitting.”

Weiner believes athletics has prevented many of his players from quitting school.

“It makes them feel more of a part of the school,” he said. “I let them know that there are people who care.”

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Basketball isn’t a high priority for some, as Coach Kevin Williams learned at Stoneridge Prep this season. The Tigers (1-15) forfeited the final game of the 1997 season because five of their eight players had President’s Day weekend getaway plans.

“It’s an apropos way to end the season,” said Williams, a former Granada Hills track coach who resigned as Stoneridge coach after one year. He characterized Stoneridge students as very bright but eccentric. He kicked a player off the team for eating a hamburger during a game.

Small schools are not always the perfect fit for a coach with lofty goals. Williams will have to look elsewhere to realize his goal of a section championship in basketball and football. Valley Torah Coach Matt Meisels, however, is content to stay where he is.

Meisels was an assistant at UCLA and L.A. City College, and had dreams of coaching in the NBA. He says he’s found a home at the small North Hollywood school.

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“Because I’m an Orthodox Jew, I’ve got commitments on Saturday night,” Meisels said. “I now hope to be at Valley Torah all my life.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

At a Glance

Here’s a look at the 20 private high schools in the region, and their boys’ basketball teams this season:

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ANTELOPE VALLEY CHRISTIAN, Lancaster

Enrollment: 53; Record: 10-12

Fast Fact: Reached Division V-A championship game last season.

BETHEL CHRISTIAN, Lancaster

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Enrollment: 124; Record: 9-14

Fast Fact: Coach Peter Thompson once played for the Eagles.

CORNERSTONE CHRISTIAN, Camarillo

Enrollment: 85; Record: 13-9

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Fast Fact: Ex-Eagle Ryan Lilegran holds Ventura County record with 62 points in a game.

COUTIN, Canoga Park

Enrollment: 50; Record: 8-10

Fast Fact: Home games usually attract fewer than 10 spectators.

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DEMIRDJIAN, Canoga Park

Enrollment: 180; Record: 15-6

Fast Fact: Eddy Atamian has coached both boys’ and girls’ teams for five seasons.

FAITH BAPTIST, Canoga Park

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Enrollment: 190; Record: 3-20

Fast Fact: Won championship in 1990.

FIRST LUTHERAN, Sylmar

Enrollment: 100; Record: 1-17

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Fast Fact: Coach Scott Barker has never had a player taller than 6 feet.

GRACE BRETHREN, Simi Valley

Enrollment: 111; Record: 14-8

Fast Fact: Only two boys in senior class.

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HIGHLAND HALL, Northridge

Enrollment: 60; Record: 4-14

Fast Fact: Play home games at a Sun Valley recreation center.

HILLCREST CHRISTIAN, Thousand Oaks

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Enrollment: 40; Record: 2-16

Fast Fact: Campus is converted hospital.

HOLY MARTYRS, Encino

Enrollment: 120; Record: 15-11

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Fast Fact: Five-time league champions.

LANDMARK WEST, Encino

Enrollment: 120; Record: 15-6

Fast Fact: Lion Kyle Martin commutes daily from Palos Verdes.

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OAK GROVE, Ojai

Enrollment: 45; Record: 2-8

Fast Fact: Never decided on a nickname.

OJAI VALLEY, Ojai

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Enrollment: 106; Record: 0-7

Fast Fact: Curriculum includes courses in camping and rock climbing.

SANTA CLARITA CHRISTIAN, Canyon Country

Enrollment: 56; Record: 11-10

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Fast Fact: Made its first playoff appearance this season.

STONERIDGE PREP, Tarzana

Enrollment: 65; Record: 1-15

Fast Fact: Didn’t have enough players to finish the season.

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VALLEY TORAH, North Hollywood

Enrollment: 120; Record: 10-10

Fast Fact: School prohibits female students from attending boys’ games.

VENTURA COUNTY CHRISTIAN, Ventura

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Enrollment: 100; Record: 5-11

Fast Fact: Will hold a summer camp in hopes of attracting basketball players.

VIEWPOINT, Calabasas

Enrollment: 130; Record: 11-9

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Fast Fact: Offers 10 sports, five more than any other school of its size.

WEST VALLEY CHRISTIAN, West Hills

Enrollment: 50

Record: 7-10

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Fast Fact: Claims 95% of its students go on to four-year colleges.


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