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Triple-threat athletes help power unbeaten Capistrano Valley football team

Eric Sondheimer
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There’s an extraordinary story unfolding with the unbeaten football team at Mission Viejo Capistrano Valley High. The Cougars, 9-0, are a team primarily comprised of neighborhood kids, and the junior class includes five players who are three-sport athletes.

That’s twice going against the current model for success: relying on transfers and practicing a single sport year-round.

“It’s rewarding to coach in general, and fun to see these kids have some success,” coach Ernst Bucher said. “It’s a special junior class that mixes with a good senior class.”

Kudos goes to the coaches at Capistrano Valley for making it easy for students to play more than one sport.

“We never get into each other’s way,” Bucher said.

It has enabled Nathan Manning (football, basketball, baseball), Jake Meyer (football, basketball, baseball), Tommy Dickman (football, soccer, baseball), Lance Gardiner (football, soccer, baseball) and Blake Morgan (football, baseball, track) to pull off the feat of playing three sports during the era of specialization.

Morgan, who ran back a kickoff for a touchdown two weeks ago, plays center field in the spring and also runs the 100 meters in track. Baseball coach Bob Zamora decided that track helps Morgan’s speed even if he misses occasional practices.

Manning, the Cougars’ standout quarterback, is expected to be the starting shortstop in baseball and a major contributor in basketball. He has no intention of dropping any sport.

“I try to do them all because I feel basketball will help with athleticism and baseball is a big mental sport, so that helps you with football as a quarterback,” he said. “Each sport has a benefit with the others.”

During Capistrano Valley’s bye week, several of the three-sport athletes were not only getting a rest from football, but also sneaking in a workout with another sport, whether it was taking batting practice or shooting free throws.

The coaches are supporting them by taking away any stress and worries that not being with the team full time is going to hurt them.

“It’s kind of difficult during football season to work out for baseball,” Gardiner said. “The coaches really help us out and give us flexibility. It’s cool.”

Said Dickman: “The main challenge is joining the sports after the one before that ends, then getting into the hang of it. It’s a fun time that we’re all involved in baseball and football.”

It’s not just having five three-sport athletes on its team that makes Capistrano Valley a school to root for. It’s also that there are no transfer students in the starting lineup. Every starter has been at the school since their freshman year.

“Every win is that much more rewarding because it’s just a neighborhood team,” Meyer said. “It feels a lot better than kids around the county just going to one school just to be a powerhouse.”

Said Gardiner: “These are the kids I went to grade school with. We’ve got a lot of camaraderie. We’ve known each other since we were young. It makes winning feel sweeter knowing you were with your guys the whole way.”

Capistrano Valley’s football team is ranked No. 1 in Division 4 and closes the regular season on Friday against Dana Hills. The Cougars are on quite a run. And when football season is finished, it’s on to basketball season. Or soccer season. Or baseball season.

What a concept: have fun competing in multiple sports for your community school.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

Twitter: @latsondheimer

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