1992 Alumnus Todd Van Nuys Remembers Varsity Basketball as 'one of the best times of [his] life'
Submitted by Ed Booth on Tue, 05/25/2010 - 3:48pm.
On paper, it figured to be a mismatch of such huge proportions that most people involved probably pondered the need to play the game at all.
Chico High School’s 1990-91 boys basketball team had ground out just four regular-season victories against 20 losses. On the other hand, the Panthers’ first-round foe in the Northern Section playoffs, Enterprise of Redding, was the state’s third-ranked team in Division II. Clearly, it was a recipe for a blowout.
However, Chico dealt Enterprise a stunning 63-60 setback, ending the Hornets’ season and giving first-year Panthers head coach Sam Simmons an indelible memory.
Chico succumbed 60-49 to Central Valley in the semifinals five days later, but the cataclysm from beating Enterprise was still reverberating.
Key to that victory was junior Todd Van Nuys, who at 6-foot-3 was hardly dominating in size, but whose work ethic and desire to succeed made him— and his team— a formidable opponent.
Simmons, a 1965 Chico graduate, took the reins after spending a year at the helm of Pleasant Valley’s varsity boys club. He had spent several years as the Vikings JV coach, but stepped up when longtime varsity coach Denny Varley took a one-year hiatus to become an assistant at Butte College.
Varley’s return coincided with Simmons’ “rookie” season at his alma mater, with Chico’s Jim Land stepping down after five seasons. Success – at least in sheer numbers – eluded Simmons during the first campaign.
There was no better balm, however, than bumping off Enterprise in the playoffs… and no better player and personality than Van Nuys in helping to make it happen.
“Todd was a fierce competitor and an overachiever,” Simmons said. “The main reason that team had such good chemistry was his personality and his aggressiveness.”
With no one taller than Van Nuys, Simmons said he was “more of a center than a forward,” despite being relatively short as a varsity center.
“I remember that group fondly because it was one of my first ones at Chico, and they achieved more than people thought they would,” Simmons said. “Through the years we’ve remained friends and it’s always good to see him (Van Nuys). I’m pretty close to all of those kids, still. We have good memories, which in the long run is really all you’re doing.”
Van Nuys, a 1992 alumnus, was equally effusive in his praise for Simmons.
“It was a great time… one of the best times of my life, playing for him,” Van Nuys said. “He was a great coach and motivator. If you got down, he’d bring you back up. It really worked for me.”
Van Nuys said their relationship, which has grown into a friendship strong to this day, went beyond the court and the chalkboard of practice.
“Sam was a coach at a lot of times, and a lot of times a mentor— almost a father figure,” Van Nuys said. “You could talk about anything on your mind in your personal life.
“He would take care of his players – and that was the best way to coach at any level, I think. I know he was a great influence on me. It would be few and far between to find anyone who didn’t like or respect him.
“Our team was not extremely talented, but we worked our tails off. That was due to a good work ethic and good coaching,” he said.
Van Nuys’ fondest memory was a non-league tournament game in Red Bluff— also against Enterprise. In that contest, the Panthers prevailed in triple overtime after trailing by five with 17 seconds left in regulation.
At that point, Van Nuys buried a couple of free throws, and Chico intercepted the inbounds pass. Jeff Carter drained a three-pointer to force overtime.
Chico won the tournament, and Van Nuys and teammate Dan Gemma each picked up an all-tournament award.
Van Nuys now works as a sales representative for Medtronics medical equipment, and returned to Chico four years ago. He had spent five years each in San Francisco and Sacramento as a salesman for Xerox, before getting on with his current employer and spending four more years in Sacramento.
He recalled playing basketball for Citrus School in the Chico Area Recreation and Park District program – using Chico High School’s gym as a “home” court.
“We used the cross courts,” Van Nuys said with a chuckle.
He played for Chico Junior in seventh, eighth and ninth grades – freshmen didn’t return to Chico and PV until the 1992-93 year – and then competed for Gerald Circo on the JV team.
That set the stage for Simmons’ debut as coach at the school.
“During Todd’s senior year, we played very, very well for the people we had,” Simmons recalled. “Todd did a very good job, as I remember – he played way above his ability. No one was looking for us to do much of anything, but we had a good season.
“The capper was we met PV at Butte College in the section final. Varley had come back to PV. That was a thrill for me,” Simmons said, after having been the junior varsity coach under Varley for a long time.
“He was a friend and it was a great opportunity. They beat us 53-49 but we had been pretty successful. We certainly overachieved.”
Simmons mentioned Carter, Joe Biggers, Tyrone Thomas – who had an exceptional game in the section final – and Gemma and Dan Beveridge were the cogs that season.
“Todd and Dan were the only two tall guys at 6-3,” Simmons said.
“Todd was fun to coach, along with the team. We didn’t win any national championships or anything, but they were still a very fun group to coach.”
There are seasons in our lives when people help us to become more than we are. For many of us it was a high school coach we had along the way, whose inspiration and encouragement lasted long after high school is over.
Join The Chico High Foundation Board, On Saturday, August 21, 2010, at the Elk's Club on Manzanita Avenue for the first ever Chico High School Sports Reunion.
Social hour begins at 5:30 p.m. followed by a BBQ dinner at 7:00 p.m. Varsity Coaches from the last 60 years will be there as well as the former athletes from those golden years.