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Commitment to Dominance : Carson Bent on Bringing Hart Program to Forefront of Southland Football

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Dave Carson seems misplaced on the Hart High practice field. Carson, Hart’s new coach, is barking instructions, whipping the Indians into shape for their traditional opener against Canyon on Friday night at College of the Canyons.

A winning attitude is pervasive at Hart, something to which Carson is unaccustomed.

The team has more talent than you can shake a goal post at, something else foreign to Carson.

And football promises to be a strength for the Santa Clarita Valley school as long as bulldozers keep clearing the way for houses and the families of future quarterbacks keep moving into them.

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For the past five years, Hart has been one of the most successful teams in the Valley area, winning five consecutive Foothill League championships and 20 consecutive league games. Hart won Southern Section championships in 1983 and ’86. Last season, Hart’s sophomore team posted its fourth consecutive undefeated season, extending its winning streak to 40 games.

Carson is hardly accustomed to such prosperity. He has spent the past five years trying to build Burbank High into a contender while working with marginal talent. Carson compiled a 27-25 record, excluding six forfeit losses last season. The Bulldogs qualified for the playoffs in 1984--the team’s first berth in seven years--and again in ’85. Burbank was headed for the playoffs last year before being stripped of the six wins for using an academically ineligible player.

Burbank never developed into a power, but Carson developed a reputation--and earned respect from colleagues--for getting maximum performance out of average talent. Without a league title to show for it, Carson was voted Foothill League Coach of the Year in 1983, ’84 and ’87.

“Dave’s teams were always the best prepared to play against us,” said Rick Scott, who coached Hart the past four seasons. “But he wasn’t always playing with a full deck as far as talent is concerned.”

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After an 11-2 record last year, a coaching change was probably the last thing anyone at Hart envisioned--until Scott abruptly ended his tenure to become head coach at Buena.

A career move was equally remote in the mind of the 40-year-old Carson. “I had not made any plans whatsoever of applying for the job,” he said. Carson, however, received a phone call from “someone close to Hart” who suggested he apply for the job. Carson did and was selected in favor of about 25 applicants, including Hart assistants Mike and Rick Herrington, who later left to coach at Bellflower.

“We felt Dave was the most qualified person,” Hart Principal Laurence Strauss said. “Our coaching staff has always had a great deal of respect for him. And he’s one who can organize a total football program.”

And so, here is Carson, at the controls of one of the best high school programs in Southern California, hollering on a hot summer morning as if it was one of the worst.

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Dressed in blood-red shorts and shirt that cling to his trim body with sweat, Carson chides his team with carefully measured criticism. One would think the team hasn’t won a game--let alone a championship--in years.

“What are you going to do in a game when I’m not here?” he asks reproachfully.

Win, probably. Even Carson concedes that his job is made considerably easier because of an abundance of talent. This team probably could run on automatic coach.

But the fact that Hart should easily post a sixth consecutive league title does not satisfy the Indians’ new chief. Winning games and a league title are not Carson’s goals. A string of league titles and Southern Section championships are.

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“I want Hart to become a dominant, dominant force--respected not just in Northern L. A. County, but in Orange County,” Carson said. “I’d like to win a couple of CIF championships in the next four or five years. Hart has always been a very prolific team under Rick, but I want them to be the kind of team where people say, ‘Oh, no! We’ve got play Hart and they’re going to knock us into the ground.’ ”

Thus, for all his coaching accomplishments at Burbank, Carson considers the elevation of Hart his most challenging assignment.

“It’s not me I want other teams to be afraid of,” Carson said. “I don’t want them to think ‘Oh, no, we’re playing Dave Carson because in reality they’re not playing me, they’re playing the team.”

But talent alone will not do the job for Carson. It will take coaching--the best of Carson--to fulfill his commitment to dominance.

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Practice is over and the players wearily walk toward the showers.

“Carson seems more demanding than most coaches,” says a sweat-soaked tight end Brian Allen, Hart’s top Division I prospect. “He’s more intense. He seems to want to get things done right away.”

Not wasting any time, Carson ducks into an air-conditioned office to scrutinize the film of Hart’s game against Canyon last season. It is difficult to talk about dominance without mentioning Canyon and Coach Harry Welch. The Cowboys have won three Southern Section championships in the past six years.

“In reality,” Carson says, “the Canyon kids, physically, are not that dominant. But as a team they are dominant because they keep so much pressure on you. Most teams can’t handle it and they fold.

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“They have it up here,” Carson says, pointing to his forehead. “They already have a leg up on you and that’s what Harry’s been able to establish. And that’s the thing I haven’t seen at Hart in the five years of looking at them. They’ve never had that dominance. You knew they were a good team, but they never struck that fear of God into you.”

Until last year, when Hart trounced Canyon, 41-21, Canyon had been Hart’s nemesis--particularly for Scott, whose team lost to Welch’s team in 1984, ’85 and ’86.

“It takes a couple of games to learn how to play against Harry,” Scott said. “You’ve got to understand that third and long with him is different than third and long with the rest of us. He just covers every corner and you have to cover every other corner or you’re gonna get beat.”

A win against Welch would bring Carson acclaim. Yet he views the game for what it is--a nonleague season opener.

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“It’s a good football team against a good football team,” Carson says. “I think we’re more talented than they are and I think they have some apparent weaknesses in what they do. It’s whether or not we can exploit them.”

Carson has never coached against Welch, but he served as an assistant under him for the 1986 Shrine game. “I think Dave is a superior coach,” Welch said. “And people will find that out in the next few years. On offense, he’s very creative, very innovative. I don’t know what to expect, but whatever it is will be sound.”

Hart hammered its competition last season with a wide-open offense led by Times All-Valley quarterback Darren Renfro, who passed for 2,808 yards. Hart rolled up 4,232 yards total offense, but defense was the team’s Achilles’ heel. The Indians surrendered an average of 243 yards a game and finished an 11-2 season with a 15-14 loss to eventual Northwestern Conference champion Arroyo Grande in the semifinals. Consequently, Carson is stressing balance.

“He’s spent more time working on the defense,” wide receiver Cameron Smyth said. “That’s because he had to.”

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Said quarterback Chad Fotheringham, who is battling fellow junior Rob Westervelt for the starting position: “His offense also is more complex than the one we used last year. You read the whole field instead of just rolling to one side. It’s a lot harder to learn.”

Carson’s program is more intense than Scott’s. “I was kind of a goof-off,” Scott said candidly. “Carson is a little more disciplined. He’s more matched up to Harry Welch’s time commitment.”

But does Carson match up to Welch as a coach?

“I’m not out to beat Harry Welch,” Carson says. “I’m concerned about us being prepared. A win will just be a tremendous boost for our program. It will get us off on the right road quicker than if we lose.

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“Rick lost the game three of the four years he was here. But he still won a CIF championship one year, finished second one year and should have won it last year. So it doesn’t mean we’ll have a bad season if we lose.”

It is easy for Carson to focus on the future. With a 25-year mortgage on a new house, he has rooted himself firmly in one of the most fertile football grounds in Southern California.

“From a head coaching standpoint, this is the best job I’ve had,” said Carson, who began as an assistant at San Francisco State in 1974 and also has served as an assistant at Cal State Long Beach, Cal State Northridge and Crespi High. “The whole community really supports their athletics. Whether it’s Hart, Canyon, Saugus, it doesn’t matter, people support it. In an older community, such as Burbank, the support is waning. Here, it’s on the uprise. And with the way the community is growing, I don’t think it’s peaked.”

Hart’s postseason success, however, might already have peaked. Hart has been placed in the Southern Section’s new Division III, which includes traditionally powerful Orange County leagues. The Indians are ranked fourth in the section’s preseason poll.

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Carson welcomes the challenge.

“I have a strong desire to be successful,” he said. “I’m very demanding and I’m never satisfied with myself as a coach, I’m never satisfied with my coaches and I’m never satisfied with my players and my program. I’m always trying to improve it. I’m trying to say to the players, ‘You’ve been very successful, but if you don’t set higher limits for yourself, you’re not going to get any better.

“That’s what I’m trying to do with this program--take it to new heights. The players seem to want to do it, so that’s where we’re taking them.”


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