He's a Master at His Craft : Versatile, Hard-Hitting Safety Stealing the Show for Marina

Times Staff Writer

There was a time not long ago when Sunset League football championships were the exclusive province of Edison or Fountain Valley, two schools long synonymous with success in Orange County.

Part of the reason was that the Chargers and Barons understood the value of the forward pass, long before it became the predominant trend that it is among most county schools today.

Mention Edison or Fountain Valley, and quarterbacks such as the Barons' Matt and Brett Stevens or the Chargers' Rick Bashore and Frank Seurer immediately come to mind.

The first cracks in the "Edison Valley" empire came in 1983, when Huntington Beach and Marina tied with Fountain Valley for the league title.

Moreover, it's no longer surprising when a Westminster dumps Edison, as it did in the league-opener, 24-14, or when Fountain Valley fails to make the playoffs, which happened this season for the first time since 1974.

The rest of the Sunset League, it seems, has figured that one good turn-out pattern deserves another, and largely because of it, Marina has already clinched a share of this season's league title.

Rather, it is the Chargers (3-1 in league, 7-2 overall) who will be looking for a share of the league crown when they meet the Vikings (4-0 and 6-2-1) tonight at Orange Coast College in the regular-season finale for both teams.

On offense, the Vikings are led by quarterback Rick Vanderriet and halfback Sean Magula.

On defense, safety Bill Craft has been the leader of a unit that has allowed only 39 points in league play, and one that stopped Fountain Valley, 35-0, three weeks ago.

What with all of the passes that have been flying around the Sunset League, it comes as no surprise that Craft already has seven interceptions this season, tying him with Brett Hatz of Canyon for the county lead.

Together with eight interceptions from his junior year, Craft is Marina's all-time interception leader with 15. Before a recent practice, Craft took a few moments to discuss the Vikings' season and his role in it.

"It's been fun," Craft said, "because when you win, everyone is closer. This season when we go out at night, everybody goes out together. The interceptions have been nice, but I'd hate to be known for just one thing."

Indeed, Craft is hardly one-dimensional as a football player. It's just that he has a great knack for getting to the ball.

Among county players this season, Capistrano Valley's Nathan Call and Servite's Jeff Fieldhouse have shown a great affinity for always being where the action is, for getting to the football whether as a receiver, on defense, or on special teams.

According to his coaches, Craft is also such a player. Mention his name and coaches who are otherwise preoccupied with sweating out this week's opponent lighten up considerably.

"Billy's a once-in-most-coaches'-lifetimes kind of player, kind of like Chip Rish was last year," said Andy Donegan, Marina assistant. "Players like that just don't come around all that often."

Said Larry Foley, another Marina assistant: "Billy's great because he has a great attitude. He always wants to be as good as he can be. He's always going as hard as he can and the other kids pick up on that, too."

Craft finds such praise embarrassing, but manages to take it in stride. After all, somebody has to get the credit for a winning season, and such things usually fall into the lap of the team leader as a matter of course.

A versatile athlete who expects to have eight varsity letters by the time he graduates--three in football, three in basketball, and two in volleyball--Craft enjoys football the most.

"Football's more fun because there's more action, more challenges." Craft said. "And defense is the best of all because you get to hit."

Craft, at 6-feet and 190 pounds, is no stranger to hitting. He grew up admiring safeties Nolan Cromwell of the Rams and Kenny Easley of the Seattle Seahawks because of their aggressive play.

The player that Craft is most often compared to, however, is his brother Bob, who played for the Vikings some 10 years ago. Bob Craft still holds the Marina single-season interception mark of nine and has been a role model for the younger Craft.

"I saw him play when he was here and at Golden West," Craft recalled.

Said Marina assistant Dick Degen, who has coached both players: "High school football has evolved quite a bit since Bob played--defenses and coverages are so much more sophisticated now--but in his time Bob was just as tough and intense as Bill now is. If Bob played now, I think he'd be just as good."

Over at Fountain Valley, Mike Milner recalled coaching the elder Craft in the 1976 Orange County all-star game.

"They're both very physical and tough competitors, but I think this one (Bill) has a greater instinct for the ball," said Milner.

Craft's talents will be tested tonight, considering that Edison enters the game with Mike Angelovic, the county's top passer, and Rick Justice, an equally fine, but less-heralded receiver.

Craft has yet to play on a team that has beaten Edison, although the teams fought to a scoreless tie when Craft was a sophomore.

"In years past, we may have gotten too excited and pysched ourselves out against them," Craft said. "We didn't play too hot against them last year."

Craft and his teammates will be looking to turn that around, but even if they don't, a share of the league title and entry into the playoffs are another reminder of the changes that have come to pass in the Sunset League.

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