Gridiron or Gym, Amat's Pace Is Sure Bet to Score

Times Staff Writer

As athletic careers go, Stephon Pace of Bishop Amat High in La Puente clearly has his options.

The 6-foot, 175-pound senior may be the only athlete in the San Gabriel Valley who is a major college prospect in football and basketball.

For Pace, who plays defensive back in football and point guard in basketball, the choice between the sports was not difficult.

"I feel football is my better sport for college because you don't have to be big and tall," he says. "In football you just have to have a lot of desire.

"I enjoy playing football and basketball. I just feel I can play football for longer because of the size factor."

Alex Acosta, basketball coach at Bishop Amat, thinks Pace is making the right decision.

"I think if you're going to look at long-term goals of having a chance to make it in the pros, football is probably his best choice," Acosta said.

"He's a good point guard and he can make a great impact on a college program, but 6-0 point guards in college are a dime a dozen."

During the summer the 17-year-old Pace may have been leaning in the opposite direction.

An All-Angelus League player as a junior, Pace made noticeable improvement during the summer league as he averaged 20 points a game to lead the Lancers to a strong season.

He said he started to notice improvement, not to mention interest from college recruiters, after participating in a prestigious all-star basketball camp in Pennsylvania.

"I went to the Five-Star Basketball Camp (in Pittsburgh) and it helped me come along as a player," Pace said. "It made me see that I could play with that kind of a player."

Acosta and Pace agree that weight lifting helped.

"Lifting weights helped my shots get stronger, and just shooting every day and working hard on fundamentals helped a lot," Pace said.

Added Acosta: "I think he just matured a little. He's just so much stronger than everyone else and he uses it well on the court. He knows how to take over a game."

Pace said he received a lot of letters from major basketball programs after playing well in the Five-Star camp, although he added that Southland Division I programs such as UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach State may have displayed the most interest.

"He was recruited by a number of schools but a lot didn't go after him that hard until they knew what sport he was going to play," Acosta said.

Pace said he might have signed a letter of intent to play basketball during the early-signing period in November if he had received more interest from colleges.

"I thought I would be recruited more than I was (in basketball)," he said. "I guess a lot of people just figured that I'd play football. But it wasn't definite. It depended on how my season went in football.

"The main problem was the early signing period in basketball. So I decided to wait until after the football season. A lot of people figured that meant if I had a good football season I would pick football."

As things turned out, Pace did have a good football season. As a cornerback he led the team with 101 tackles and six interceptions, which gave him 12 for his career to tie for the all-time school record. He also played well as a wide receiver with 15 receptions for 190 yards and 4 touchdowns and rushed for 136 yards and a touchdown in 15 carries, most of which were reverses.

That helped him make the Angelus League, CIF Southern Section Big Five Conference and San Gabriel Valley all-star teams.

"As the season went along I started playing with a lot more confidence," he said.

It was toward the end of the season when Pace decided to pursue football in college. "When I did as well as I did during the football season, it made it easier to decide," he said.

Still, Pace was excited about the start of basketball.

During football, Pace sharpened his basketball skills by shooting baskets after practice or whenever he could steal a few moments.

"When we were taping up or getting ready to watch films I would go into the gym for five or 10 minutes just to shoot a few with the team," he said.

Perhaps the dedication is starting to pay off. Pace is averaging 14 points, 6 rebounds and 3.1 assists for the season but has averaged 19 points a game since the start of league play to help the Lancers build an 18-1 record and capture the No. 1 ranking in the Southern Section 5-A Division.

With his development as a basketball player, Pace has not ruled out the possibility of playing basketball in college, but he still thinks his brightest future is in football.

"It's a possibility that I would play some (basketball)," he says. "But it depends on how things go and how I adapt to college. It depends on the situation and what college I go to."

Pace, regarded as one of the top defensive backs in Southern California, has narrowed his list of schools to USC, UCLA, Nebraska and Washington.

He will probably not decide until a few days before Feb. 10--the first day prep football players can sign letters of intent with schools.

For the moment Pace is more concerned about his team's pivotal game against defending state Division I champion Mater Dei (12-4) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Bishop Amat.

It's an opportunity for the Lancers to snap Mater Dei's 55-game Angelus League winning streak and emerge as the favorite to win both the league and 5-A title.

For Pace, who has watched his team struggle against the Monarchs over the years, it is a game he has been eagerly awaiting.

"They've been one of the best teams in California and we've haven't been able to compete with them for three years," he said. "But for the first time we have the ability to play with them. This team plays hard when we want something, and we feel that Mater Dei is a team we can beat this year.

"I know they're a good basketball team, but we can play awfully well when we're ready to play and against them we'll be ready to play."

For now football is about the most distant subject from Pace's mind.

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