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Thinking Big Gives Esperanza Many Sizable Returns

Times Staff Writer

For years, opposing coaches have been wondering if there’s something special in the city of Yorba Linda’s water system that magically produces those giant linemen at Esperanza High School.

Big linemen have become the trademark of Esperanza’s football program, which has qualified for the playoffs each of the last 13 seasons. The list of former Esperanza linemen reads like the Who’s Who of prep football.

The list includes former prep All-American tackles Steve Williams (UCLA), Mike Knutson (USC), James Rae (UCLA) and Mike Linn (UCLA). Esperanza has produced 22 linemen who have earned college scholarships in the past 13 years.

“I’ve never seen a high school consistently produce the size of linemen that Esperanza has over the past 10 years,” said Glen Lukenbill, El Modena’s veteran offensive line coach. El Modena will meet Eperanza at 7:30 tonight at Valencia High School.

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The current edition of Esperanza’s “Colossals of Kellogg Drive” includes Matt Werner, a 6-foot 5-inch, 240-pound tackle who is listed on several preseason All-American teams and is being heavily recruited.

The mastermind of Esperanza’s success is assistant coach Bill Pendleton, the team’s strength coach and defensive coordinator for 13 years. Pendleton is the Aztecs’ watcher of the weight room, a firm believer that increased muscle mass gained through weightlifting produces victories.

Esperanza has employed a simple formula to reach the Southern Section playoffs for 13 consecutive seasons: good running backs times strong linemen equal victories. Pendleton has the figures to support the theory.

In 1976, the average size of Esperanza’s linemen was 6-1, 190 pounds. Four years later, Pendleton began an off-season weight program and by 1982, the average size had increased to 6-1, 228 pounds.

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The reason for the increase can be found in a 3,500 square-foot weight room filled with more than $15,000 worth of muscle-developing equipment.

“Reporters are always asking me where do we get all these big kids,” Gary Meek, Esperanza coach, said. “Some think we grow them on trees. I tell them to come over here in the off-season and watch how hard our kids work under Bill in the weight room if they want answers.”

Before each season, Pendleton has every player fill out cards expressing team and individual goals. Individual goals include desired speed, size and strength. Players are then placed into groups based on strength level and position.

Naturally, the linemen have priority for the best lift stations. Some coaches prefer to call their linemen “Hogs,” but Esperanza linemen are stars who rarely work in anonymity.

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“How many of the great running backs that we’ve had here at Esperanza have gone on to make an impact in college? None,” Pendleton said. “Our linemen have made our running backs into great runners.”

Esperanza lists two former running backs among Orange County’s record-holders. Mike Keefe (1977-79) is fourth among the county’s career rushing leaders with 3,506 yards. Steve Morford (1982) is fourth on the county’s single-season scoring list with 29 touchdowns. Neither developed into college running backs.

“This year, we have two new quarterbacks (Keith McDonald and Mike Aed), a new tailback (Lance Brown) and a new fullback (Jeff Meek), so a big offensive line is instrumental to our success,” Pendleton said.

Linemen often play a waiting game at Esperanza. Last year, Linn developed into an all-state lineman after failing to crack the starting lineup as a junior. This year, tackle Alan Vigil (6-4, 255) could do the same after starting only three games as a junior.

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“We always have a senior line, so juniors play on the scout team and wait their turn,” Pendleton said. “This is by far the strongest group we’ve ever had. Under the new blocking rules, the bigger players with the upper-body strength are the more successful linemen.

“It used to be that a good offensive lineman needed great footwork and balance. Now, a lineman plants his feet and extends his arms to block.”

Pendleton rated Rae and Knutson as the top linemen to play at Esperanza. Rae is at UCLA. Knutson attended USC, had academic problems and transferred to San Diego State.

“Both were very intense players who didn’t talk much,” Pendleton said. “They were introverted types, but they worked harder than anybody.”

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Pendleton’s idea of hard work includes lifting during practice twice a week. Tuesday, while the team’s first-string offense worked out against the defensive scout team, the first-string defense lifted for 45 minutes.

Pendleton had the players move to a storage shed that serves as a makeshift weight room. The players shed their helmets, pads and jerseys and did five sets of squats and dead lifts before returning to the practice field.

“It used to be that the platoon players stood around and waited until it was their turn to practice,” Pendleton said. “We decided to get them lifting.”

During the workout, Pendleton pointed to junior Keith Navidi, a 6-4, 235-pound defensive tackle. He predicted Navidi would be the top recruited player on the team next season.

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Then, he pointed to a group of younger players on an adjacent field, noting that nine freshmen were 6 feet or taller.

“Bill will suck those kids into the weight room after the season, and they’ll be giants by the time they’re seniors,” Meek said.

AZTEC HONOR ROLL Ten Years of Esperanza’s Top Linemen

Pos. Player Year College DT Chris Monson 1978 Stanford OT Steve Williams 1979 UCLA OT Mike Knutson 1982 USC DT Jeff Taylor 1982 CS Fullerton C Nick Gotovac 1983 Cincinnati OT Rich Walk 1984 Oregon DE Derrick Gachett 1984 USC OT James Rae 1986 UCLA OT Mike Linn 1987 UCLA DE Rick Pressel 1987 Army

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