Normally when a basketball team improves its record in one season from 4-22 to 13-13 and loses only one starter for the next season, the coach would be tempted to almost claim a championship.
Jack Smith, head coach at the University of La Verne, faces that kind of situation entering the 1981-82 campaign. So how does Smith expect his Leos to fare this season?
“We hope to be competitive this season,” Smith said.with a straight face. That’s a surprising statement; Roland Ortmayer, not Smith, is famous for his funny one liners. Seriously, it seems impossible for the Leos, a team with a surplus of experience and momentum on its side, not to be at least competitive while being one of the favorites for the conference championship.
Smith may be acting like Tom Landry, not letting his players get over confident, but he does have a legitimate worry.
The Leopards did lose only one player from last year, but what a player he was. Dan Pearce was only a 6’7″ center who was perhaps the best shooting big man in the conference. No problem. His shoes will be more than adequately filled by another big man, 6’6″ Glen Daniels, an import from Hemet. Daniels may not be as good a shooter as Pearce, but he is more physical and should bring down more rebounds. Daniels’ only problem.is that he is constantly getting into foul trouble. That is headache number one for Smith.
Headache number two is injuries. Not just injuries, but key injuries. Even before their first game, the Leos already have two starters on the injured list, John Phillips and Gary Stewart.
Stewart’s injury is a slight ligament problem which is not too serious and he is expected back in the lineup by Nov. 27 when the Leos officially open their season. Phillips’ ligaments in his knee were torn, however, and he will not be able to play until conference action begins in January.
With two players out, the Leos are slowed down quite a bit. As Smith put it, “Losing John and Gary definitely takes some speed away from us. We have some inexperienced depth and how well we do depends on their (Stewart and Phillips) ability to come back.”
Smith, in his fourth year of coaching at La Verne and third as head coach, identified his three captains as Andre Bossieux, Tim Roe and Phillips, with Roe labeled as the floor leader.
While being out of the lineup for a long time, Phillips commented on the changes on the team.
“There will be more pressure on Tim to shoot more often. Also Gary will have to do extra rebounding,” he said.
Other important team members include Kenny Moore, a senior off to a good start (in exhibition games) at forward. Also helping the squad will be two of last year’s junior varsity players, guards Johnny Walsh and Brad Smith (Jack’s son).
In addition to those two sophomores, Smith also named freshman Kevin Vail and sophomore David Confair as possible players. He also mentioned Wesley McCormick, who is injured at the moment. Scott Shier should help, coming out when football season ends. Two more named were Johnny Efstathiou from Downey and Dave Webber, a transfer from Diablo Junior Col lege.
Smith sees headache number three as the pre-conference schedule which gives the Leos only two home contests. That schedule will be rough as it includes participating in the Cal Lutheran and Cal Baptist tournaments.
In the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC), Smith predicts the same old combination, Whittier and Redlands finishing one, two. Then Smith believes the remaining positions are up for grabs among Occidental, Pomona-Pitzer, Claremont and ULV. The coach seemed to forget about Caltech, but with the kind of team it has every year, who doesn’t?
Smith summed up his team, “We should be a fast break team. We had a lot of quickness before our injuries hit. We do have six freshmen we are happy with. One problem we have (as always) is a lack of height. If Daniels fouls out, we’re in trouble.”
For some reason it doesn’t seem like Smith is telling everyone the truth about how good his team will be. Injuries hurt, but this should be the most experienced squad at La Verne in quite some time. That, coupled with the experience of winning some games last season, should give the Leos confidence they need to be a legitimate contender. Smith could be trying to catch the rest of the SCIAC napping by fielding a team that could take the conference by storm.
Or Smith could just be cautious, not wanting fans to get their hopes too high if the team were to fall flat on its face.