One day short of March, one game short of a trip to the CIF finals, the varsity boys basketball teams of Santa Barbara High and Laguna Blanca School arrived at the conclusions to their 2013-14 seasons. Their old and wise head coaches — 70-year-old Santa Barbara natives David Bregante and Sal Rodriguez — were grateful for these teams. In all their years of living and breathing basketball, this was one of the sweetest.
THE BEGINNING: Their parallel paths began in 1960-61, when Bregante, a slightly built Santa Barbara High senior, played his first season of basketball. “I wasn’t very good,” he said. “Sal was a great player.” Rodriguez was a dynamic junior guard at San Marcos, the new school across town. The Royals went all the way to the CIF Division II championship game. “I’ll never forget it,” Rodriguez said. “We lost by 11 to Bell Gardens.” He later realized how special that year was. San Marcos has made only one other appearance in the finals. Bregante went to SBCC and started to develop as a basketball player. Rodriguez also became a Vaquero, and they were teammates in the season ending in 1963. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
WESTMONT AND U.S. WARRIORS: Bregante got a job after his stint at SBCC, but he kept playing basketball in the city recreation leagues. He caught the eye of Westmont College coach Tom Byron, who recruited him to join the Warriors. In the 1967-68 season, Bregante was one of the nation’s leading scorers with an average of 23.6 points per game. Rodriguez went to Fresno State, where he ended his playing career to concentrate on getting his degree. He was drafted into the army in 1968 and spent a year in Vietnam.
CAREER DECISIONS: Rodriguez went to work at the Goleta Boys Club in 1970. He put his basketball knowledge to work, coaching future prep and college players. One of them was Ben Howland. “I used to kick his butt one-on-one, but when he was 15 and I was 30, I couldn’t beat him,” Rodriguez said. “I told him he’d never catch up with all the wins I had.” When Howland was head coach at UCLA, Rodriguez brought him back several times for Boys & Girls Club fundraisers.
Bregante, meanwhile, was an assistant coach at Westmont while working toward a teaching credential. In March 1973, after Byron died from cancer, the Warriors rallied to reach the NAIA National Championships, where Bregante experienced a painfully unforgettable moment: “We lost to Guilford College on a last-second shot by World B. Free.” Bregante spent the next several decades teaching at Santa Barbara Junior High and Rio Mesa High. He was content to coach at the 9th-grade and junior-varsity levels.
FATHERS AND SONS: Basketball always was the topic whenever Bregante and Rodriguez got together. They joined forces with the late John Ward in coaching their sons — Joseph Bregante, Bo Rodriguez, and Johnny Ward — on a Boys Club team that included future NBA guard Julyan Stone. “We were the Three Musketeers,” the elder Bregante said. Johnny Ward has succeeded his father as coach at Carpinteria High, and this past season, Joseph and Bo were assistant coaches to their fathers at Santa Barbara and Laguna Blanca.
A BLESSED SEASON: Neither Bregante nor Rodriguez planned to become varsity basketball coaches at retirement age. They were needed. “I felt bad for the kids there,” said Bregante, who agreed three seasons ago to coach a Santa Barbara team that had won only two games in the previous year. Rodriguez had earlier taken the Laguna Blanca job at the request of a friend whose son was on the team. “Our main philosophy is that the kids gotta have fun,” Bregante said. “They enjoy up-tempo basketball, running up and down the court. If they share the ball and play hard, good things happen.”
It happened for both their teams this year. Rodriguez first had to persuade some parents at Laguna Blanca, an academically oriented private school, to let their sons play basketball. “We have a chance to do something great,” he told them. After taking some licks against much bigger schools, the Owls won the Condor League championship and put together three CIF play-off victories before losing to top-seeded Trinity Classical Academy, 49-38, in Valencia last Friday. “They were a hungry team from losing in the finals a year ago,” Rodriguez said. “Every time they made a basket, the place went crazy.”
Bregante’s Dons had a sensational year, finishing with a 25-3 record. They went unbeaten in the Channel League and scored 92 points in their first play-off game. But while they could run away from most teams, they did not have much brawn. In Friday’s semifinal at Oak Park, their finesse lost out to a physically imposing team, 64-57. Bregante was sad to see it end for the senior players (Jack Baker, Noah Burke, Isaiah Tapia, and David Trujillo) who had energized the Santa Barbara program. “I love these kids and hate to see them go,” he said. “I thank the Lord I got to coach them, with my son helping me. It was a blessing.”