Every March for the past four years, Bill Oates and his men's basketball team at The Master's College have gone to America's heartland and returned in the same condition.
Every March for the past four years, the Mustangs have pulled into Tulsa, Okla., set on winning the NAIA Division I national championship and have come home as always.
Sort of like Susan Lucci and that doggone Emmy.
But don't feel sorry for the Mustangs, who are participating next week in yet another tournament at Oral Roberts University's Mabee Center. Their purpose there involves more than basketball.
"Sometimes our kids speak to church groups and at some Christian high schools, so the people there really like us and we've become kind of the crowd favorites," said Oates, also the Master's athletic director.
In that nook of the Bible Belt, young men with traditional values are always popular, always welcomed. If they can entertain folks with fancy passes and eye-popping dunks, so much the better.
Which, religious beliefs aside, is a breath of fresh air in this polluted age of athletes choking coaches, kicking photographers and spitting on fans.
The Mustangs wouldn't be caught dead pulling such stunts and certainly not in Tulsa, where they will be among 32 teams chasing glory starting Tuesday through March 23.
"Everybody is a conference champion or a regional champion," Oates said. "It's very tough."
The Mustangs, who never qualified for the single-elimination tournament before Oates arrived at the Newhall campus in the 1993-94 season, have learned how difficult it is to win at the championships.
In 1994, Master's lost in the first round and finished 28-5.
In 1995, the Mustangs lost in the quarterfinals but finished 31-5, a school record for season victories.
They were bounced in the second round in 1996 and in the first round last year, giving new meaning to Oklahoma's "Sooner" nickname.
No sooner had the Mustangs arrived than it was time to leave.
Oates wouldn't mind picking up a higher hotel tab this year.
"I really enjoy this because it kind of distinguishes what we've accomplished during the season," Oates said.
The Mustangs (23-11) accomplished plenty with a squad short on upperclassmen--only two seniors and two juniors--but long on determination. The team lacks the talent of previous Mustang teams but not the fortitude.
Master's clinched a trip to Tulsa by winning the Midwest Region Independent tournament last weekend at Avila College in Kansas City, Mo.
"One of the things that really stands out about them is that they care," Oates said of his players. "We've had some more matured teams and physically talented teams, but on this team, everyone contributes. We are really a very unified team.
"They have been a pleasant surprise. They played extremely well the last three or four weeks of the season. They've shown a lot of character and poise."
Although the Mustangs have won seven of nine since Feb. 5, their chances in Tulsa are anybody's guess. But whatever happens, even another early departure, Oates will keep things in perspective.
"I thought the team two years ago had an excellent chance to win the whole thing," Oates said. "But it's all relative. You never know what your draw is going to be like. You just go there and do the best you can."
Seniors Mike O'Quinn, Lucky Grundy, Trenton Cross and Kevin Taylor will leave the Cal State Northridge basketball team, but their replacements have Coach Bobby Braswell excited.
Guard Derrick Higgins, who might have been the Matadors' best player before breaking a foot five games into the season, will be back for his senior year.
Freshman Markus Carr of Palmdale High redshirted this season after suffering a preseason injury. Carr will compete at point guard with freshman Bradley Jackson of Inglewood High, rated as one of the nation's top 100 high school players, and Jason Crowe, a junior who had to sit out this season after transferring from American University.
Two post players also will join the team. Andre Larry, a 6-foot-9 junior, sat out after transferring from Oregon, where he played sparingly for two seasons. Dan Read, a 6-foot-10 center from Eugene, Ore., is the only true freshman besides Jackson.
"When you combine the guys coming in with the talent we have returning and the benefit of having Derrick Higgins back for one more year, it should be an exciting time," Braswell said.
Guard Carl Holmes was the Big Sky Conference freshman of the year and averaged 11.0 points, and 6-9 center Brian Heinle matured greatly and averaged 4.8 rebounds and 6.9 points in only 17 minutes a game.
Also returning are Greg Minor, an expert three-point shooter who averaged 12.2 points, forward Jeff Parris, who shot 62.9% and averaged 5.1 rebounds, and guard Carloes Harper, who played sparingly as a freshman.
Uncertain is the status of center Jabari Simmons, who averaged 12.3 points and 6.3 rebounds before leaving the team for personal reasons three weeks before the end of the season. Another question mark is Brian Hagens, a forward who was suspended by Braswell for the season after playing in only seven games.
"I expect Jabari to be back, but I'm less certain about Hagens," Braswell said.
Staff writer Steve Henson contributed to this notes column.