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PONY Bowl: A Battle on Football Field and in the Polls

Times Staff Writer

How important are top rankings when it comes to a football bowl game?

That depends on who you listen to and which polls you believe.

At this late stage of the season, about the only thing community college officials seem to agree on is that the winner of Saturday night’s Orange County PONY Bowl Classic between El Camino and Taft may decide the national title.

With kickoff slated for 7 at LeBard Stadium in Costa Mesa, three polls have come under increasing scrutiny. El Camino (10-0), the South Coast Conference champion, and Taft (9-0), winner of the Central Valley Conference, marched toward this expected meeting as the No. 1 and 4 teams nationally until this week.

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That’s when Taft, ranked No. 1 in the nation for most of the season by the Santa Ana-based JC Grid Wire, fell to No. 2 behind Ellsworth, Iowa. Ellsworth has been a perennial contender for Grid Wire founder Hank Ives and has concluded its season undefeated. Taft ended a week earlier, preserving its 15-game victory streak. El Camino, ranked fourth for much of the season, moved to the third spot on the strength of a season-ending 39-20 victory over Golden West.

But the Junior College Athletic Bureau, founded 15 years ago by Fred Baer, former City College of San Mateo public information officer, ranks Taft atop its national polls. El Camino is No. 2 in the state but third in the nation behind Ellsworth and Taft.

At a PONY Bowl dinner this week, game officials let it be known that they feel the El Camino-Taft winner should be declared national champion. Three times the PONY Bowl has had a hand in deciding a national title, Director Keith Calkins said. To alleviate doubt, the game will extend into overtime if regulation play ends in a tie. The first team to score would win.

Ives indicated there is a strong possibility his final ranking will reflect the outcome of the PONY Bowl.

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Baer said the winner will be declared his national champion.

El Camino officials say a game with Taft would decide a national title. But to Taft Coach Al Baldock, a 25-year veteran of community college coaching, the numbers mean little.

“Rankings are meaningless,” he said. “Over the years they have been nice for the press and fans, but they cannot tell true worth. How can you compare Ellsworth to El Camino.? How can someone compare El Camino to Taft?”

Baldock ranks third in the state in career wins at 198-46-7.

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Contrast that with El Camino’s John Featherstone who at 38 brings a 19-11 mark into the contest.

Taft is no stranger to postseason games, having played in the last seven of Bakersfield’s Shrine Potato bowls. The Cougars have finished first nationally twice since 1982.

El Camino is “the new kid on the block,” according to Featherstone. The Warriors last won a conference title in 1971 and were known primarily as a passing team that often fell prey to injuries.

El Camino has lost half a dozen top players this year because of injuries but unlike past seasons found a way to win.

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Saturday’s game features a contrast in styles. Taft boasts California’s best running attack, averaging 320 yards a game. Baldock rotates several runners. The leading rusher, Gerald Williams, averaged 12.5 yards a carry.

Despite improved running, El Camino has survived through the air. Quarterback Dan Speltz, the offensive player of the year in the South Coast Conference, ranked fourth in state passing. He threw 25 touchdown passes and only eight interceptions. Split end Dwight Pickens tied a school record with 13 touchdown receptions and had two more called back on penalties.

Both teams have excellent defenses against the rush. Taft allowed a state low average of only 23.7 yards a game. El Camino ranked 10th in the state against rushing, allowing 111.2 yards a game.

Both coaches say turnovers probably will decide the outcome.

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“Breaks in a game like this mean a lot,” Baldock said.

Said Featherstone: “We have to play a near flawless game to win. Special teams, turnovers and field possession are keys.”

Tickets are available at the gate. A preliminary game between Saddleback College (8-2) and Cerritos College (6-3-1) is scheduled for 1 p.m. The cost to watch both games is $8. A single game costs $5.


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