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Tourney spots bring hope for hoops future

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By Erik Engle
Sports Editor

With both the men’s and women’s basketball teams making the playoffs, there is a lot to be excited about. Unfortunately for Cuesta, both teams were eliminated in their first games of the CCCAA playoffs. The men’s team finished the year with 19 wins and a playoff berth as the twelfth seed, while the women’s team finished with 23 wins and a playoff berth as the seventeenth and final seed.

“What we did didn’t seem to be enough for the state to give us a higher seed,” men’s basketball coach Rusty Blair said. “Four of the last five years we have been conference champions and we had to go on the road. … It’s not what we did, it’s about what we aren’t being recognized by the rest of the state for doing.”

The men fell just one basket short of escaping the first round against 9th seeded Southwestern, 74-77. “There’s no sense in feeling bad for months and months,” Blair said. “This was an overachieving season,”

The Cougars may have performed even better off the court than they did on the court this season, according to Blair.

“The real highlight of the season was being named the Scholar Athlete Team for the state of California,” Blair said. The CCCAA Team Scholar Athlete Award is given to the team with the highest cumulative GPA within every sport. There are 98 men’s basketball teams that are eligible for this award.

Cuesta’s basketball program is no stranger to this award, as the men’s team has won it five of the last eight years. “These guys are called scholar athletes, not athlete scholars,” Blair said. “That makes our job a lot easier because if we win championships on the floor and our athletes are good students, there is a good chance of us moving them on with a scholarship.”

In the last 20 years, Coach Blair and his staff have placed 108 former players in four year universities with scholarships, more than anyone else in that timeframe. “Nobody [on our team] came to Cuesta to just go home after,” Blair said. “They all want to move on with a scholarship.”

Despite the long history of success, Cuesta was not picked to go to the playoffs in the preseason poll. “We were picked last in the conference, so for us to win the conference championship, to get the conference number one seed in the playoffs, and virtually the whole year stay in the top 20 rankings of the state of California, that’s pretty good for being predicted to be the last place team,” Blair said.

The Cougars were able to play at such a high level all season because of their ability to work together as a team. “In some cases we over-pass the ball,” Blair said. “With some teams you see one pass and a shot, but here you might see 20 passes in a 35 second segment.”

This season’s team averaged almost 15 assists per game, three more than their opponents’ assist per game average. “You don’t see that too much in community college because everyone wants to get to the next level,” Blair said. “It’s usually more about me, me, me, not we, we, we.”

The Cuesta women’s basketball team ended the regular season on a low note with two straight losses. This was the first time that happened all season and it set the tone for the playoffs. They were defeated by sixteenth seed Riverside, 61-71. Coach Blair was not the only one who felt his team had been snubbed by the seeding committee.

“We felt that for the second year in a row we kinda got overlooked,” women’s basketball coach Ronald Barba said. “Unfortunately we haven’t got out of the first or second round, and I think we are a few players from it right now. I was disappointed.”

Since coach Barba took over five seasons ago, the Cougars have improved on their win total from the previous season every year. “I’m really positive about the future, I think we’re looking at good recruits coming in,” Barba said. “When I first came in we were recruiting by putting up posters in the cafeteria and in the bathrooms.”

The Cuesta women ranked fifth in assists and steals per game, sixth in points allowed per game and 3-point shooting percentage, and ninth in shooting percentage. However, they also ranked in the bottom half of the league in turnovers per game. “It’s hard to get those conversions back,” Barba said.

The team had a very strong starting five with everybody scoring 8 to 12.5 points per game and four of the five averaging 2 or more steals per game. “Our weakness was our depth,” Barba said. “We did well with what we had,I think we earned a lot of respect.”

Both the men’s and women’s coaches feel positive about the direction of their programs and the new recruits coming in for next season. They both expect to return to the playoffs next year, and hopefully make a run at the State Championship.