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ORANGE COUNTY’S BIG GAME: SANTA ANA vs. EL TORO : Fanti Catches On From Both Sides

Times Staff Writer

Robbie Fanti likes to catch things.

On Sundays, the Santa Ana High School senior likes to catch fish with his friends Bobby Joyce, Robert Lee and Donovan Mauga. They go bobbing on the ocean--Fanti trying to quell his seasickness--waiting to snare a yellowtail or a halibut.

On Fridays, Fanti likes to catch footballs, no matter who is throwing them. During games, Fanti bobs and weaves through opposing players, poised to reel in an interception or reception, while making the other team slightly nauseated.

“I just like to catch the ball,” Fanti said with a shrug. “I’m good at it.”

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Make that very good at it. And on both ends of the field. Fanti leads the Saints--a team that has the size of tight end Bobby Joyce (6-feet 6-inches, 200 pounds) and the speed of wide receiver Royal Wilbon--in receptions with 21 for 291 yards.

But defense is where Fanti has made his biggest impact. Playing safety, he has 11 interceptions--the most of any player in the county--and has two three-interception games. His goal is to tie or break the county interception record of 13 in the waning moments of the 1987 season.

Tonight, Fanti has his work cut out for him. In the Southern Conference semifinal game (Santa Ana Stadium, 7:30 p.m.), he faces one of the county’s most accurate passers, El Toro quarterback Bret Johnson. Only four of Johnson’s 203 passes have ended up in the hands of the opposing defense.

Although Fanti boasts that Johnson has never felt the kind of pressure from a line that Santa Ana’s Oscar Wilson and Damon Bland will put on him, in the same breath he also concedes that Johnson poses a formidable challenge. But it’s the kind he likes.

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“They pass,” Fanti said. “I like teams that pass.”

And no wonder. Fanti hasn’t yet had a playoff interception, and he’s getting hungry. Last week, he faced a run-oriented Santa Monica team and, and in the first round, Irvine frustrated him by not throwing the ball to his side of the field.

But when he gets the chance, Fanti rises to the challenge. Against pass-happy Mater Dei, Fanti picked off three from quarterback Mark Ramstack and, against Foothill, he recorded another hat trick. In the Foothill game he had his favorite interception of the season, stealing the ball out of a receiver’s hands and returning it 50 yards to the one-yard line.

“When I’m a receiver, I never let the other guy take the ball, but sometimes other teams just seem to give it to me,” Fanti said, adding that he hasn’t been called for pass interference once this year.

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“I try to stay right where they can’t see me, just shadowing my guy.”

Being in the shadows is a familiar spot for Fanti who, until this season, was upstaged by his cousin Richard. Last season, Richard played quarterback for the Saints and finished third among county passers. But he struggled with academic eligibility and has since withdrawn from school.

Robbie credits his cousin for his own development as a receiver. Growing up together in Santa Ana, Richard and Robbie, who look so much alike many people mistake them for each other, used to play “burnout.” They would stand out in the street, 15 feet apart, and Richard would throw the ball as hard as he could and Robbie would have to catch it.

“At first I couldn’t do it,” he said. “He threw so hard, my hands would hurt. But pretty soon my hands got a lot stronger.”

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Fanti also said his off-season activity helps make him a better receiver. During the spring, Fanti is a high jumper and pole vaulter on the track team, improving his leaping ability. During the summer, he pounds nails with his uncle’s construction company, strengthening his hands.

Two years ago, Fanti had 11 interceptions playing for the sophomore team.

Last season, he had to sit out half the year because of his own academic problems, but came back to play defensive back and wide receiver on the varsity on Friday nights and also played quarterback for the junior varsity team on Saturday.

This year, Fanti still seems to be making up for lost time. He is fourth on the team in tackles, with 35 lead tackles--20 unassisted--and 24 assists and, in addition to playing offense, Fanti returns punts and is the holder for kicks.

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It was in the latter role, against Santa Ana Valley, that Fanti got a taste of his own medicine. On a broken field goal attempt, Fanti tried to pass for the two-point conversion and was intercepted in the end zone.

Assistant coach Rick Andrade figures Fanti plays at least 40 of a game’s 48 minutes.

“He’s very dependable,” Andrade said. “He’s a clutch receiver. He and Royal (Wilbon) are very complementary. Royal has the speed, but Robbie runs the better route, which helps him on defense. And Robbie really studies the films.”

This week, Fanti has been studying the books trying to prepare for the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which he will take on Saturday morning.

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But he has been spending equal time poring over the textbook moves of Bret Johnson, preparing for tonight’s exam.

“It’s going to be good, but tough,” Fanti said.

And he expects to get a passing grade.


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