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Complementary Contemporaries : Stein, Garner Form Explosive Blend That Has Fueled Tiny Oak Park’s Running Start

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

One is a burner, the other a bruiser.

Jason Stein, with a full beard of stubble and shoulder-length hair in a ponytail--coaches and teammates kid him about getting a haircut--is the faster of the 2 Oak Park High running backs. The 6-foot-1, 175-pound Stein runs an “honest” 4.4 in the 40, according to Coach Ron Veres and is the two-time defending Southern Section 1-A Division champion in the 400 meters. Get him outside or in the open and he’s dangerous.

With a bigger build at 6-1, 185 pounds, Jess Garner can make a defender pay for tackling him. Yet, with 4.5 speed for the 40, the fullback can run around a defender as well as over one.

“You’re talking about two blue-chip athletes, Pac-10-type players,” said Veres, who was an assistant at Cal State Northridge in 1984-85 before moving to the small Agoura school last season. “These two kids have matured so much from last year it’s amazing. They walk out to the field and it’s all business. They come out and get the job done.”

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The 1-2 punch has been the force behind Oak Park’s school-record 6-0 start.

The numbers tell the story:

Stein’s 712 yards in 83 carries is third-best among Valley-area players. Garner’s 668 yards in 72 carries is sixth and their combined 1,446 total yards represents 80% of the Oak Park offense.

Garner is third among Valley-area players with 71 points and Stein is fourth with 68. Only 36 points have been scored by other Oak Park players.

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Both also start on a defense that has registered 4 shutouts. Only Calabasas, a school with 3 times the enrollment, and Tri-Valley League rival Fillmore have scored against the Eagles. Because Garner also handles the kicking duties--he has made all 23 of his point-after attempts and 2 of 3 field-goal attempts--he never leaves the field. Stein’s only rest comes when the special teams are on the field.

“When a team’s been keying on Jason, we’ve been giving it to Jess and he’s been producing,” Veres said. “If they key on Jess, they haven’t been able to stop Jason.”

Last week, Fillmore used a 9-man front to stop them. The strategy partially worked. Although Stein and Garner were limited to a combined 62 yards, the Eagles won, 15-7. After trailing, 7-0, quarterback Gary Silverman passed to Stein for a 10-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter and Garner’s point-after tied the score.

“You can hold them and hold them, but eventually one of them is going to break through,” Fillmore Coach Curtis Garner said.

Stein has drawn most of the attention the past 2 seasons. Last year, he was an All-Inland Conference selection as a safety and rushed for 864 yards. He also caught 18 passes for 309 yards and scored 18 touchdowns. This year he has 10 touchdowns, including punt returns of 85 and 86 yards.

Several schools, including UCLA, Washington, Washington State and New Mexico, have recruited him. UCLA is his first choice.

Stein holds school records for most touchdowns in a season (18), most touchdowns in a game (5) and most receptions in a game (9). All formerly were held by Erik Affholter, now a senior receiver at USC. Both Stein and Garner are within range of Affholter’s single-season rushing record of 1,340 yards.

“Jason’s strength is that when he scans the line and sees the daylight, he accelerates towards it,” said assistant Roger Newell, who works with the running backs. “He’ll go straight for it and squirt through.”

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Garner’s emergence as a Division I prospect has been more of a surprise. Last year, during the transition to Veres’ system, he was moved from receiver to tight end to fullback, back to tight end and then finished the season at fullback, gaining 314 yards.

Garner has carved his own identity this year while stepping out of Stein’s shadow. He and Stein’s rushing statistics are nearly identical and Garner has just 4 fewer touchdowns. Recruiters from Washington State, Brigham Young, Texas El Paso, Nevada Las Vegas and several Division II schools have shown interest. Last week Veres mailed information on Garner to USC and Cal. In college, he probably will play strong safety or outside linebacker.

“We switched Jess to fullback because at tight end we weren’t getting the ball into his hands enough,” Veres said.

Said Newell: “He doesn’t have the pure speed Jason does, but he can take a lot of punishment. And he has great ability to cut back.”

Their personality traits carry over onto the field, Veres says. Stein fits the description of the flashy tailback--outgoing and gregarious. He drove a Porsche 944 until he traded it in on a new 4-wheel-drive truck. Garner is quiet and unassuming--the overworked and under-recognized fullback, according to Veres.

“Jason’s not a rah-rah type player. He’ll get the team going by making a 50-yard run,” Veres said. “Jess is more of a consistent person. On third and one, he’ll get the one yard. He’s able to come through in the clutch.”

At such a small school--Oak Park’s enrollment is 343 and the team has just 17 players--Veres is fortunate to have 2 standout players. Veres emphasizes team play and team spirit to compensate for the roster size. Three times a week the Eagles eat dinner together--Tuesday nights at a local pizza parlor, Thursday nights at a player’s house and a pregame meal on Fridays.

“This is one of the tightest-knit groups of guys I’ve ever coached,” Veres said. “Even though Jess and Jason have gotten a lot of notoriety, they still want the best for the team. . . . Off the field they’re great friends, but on the field they’re both intense competitors.”

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They have been friends since Stein’s family moved to Agoura when he was in the fourth grade.

“Jason getting most of the attention doesn’t bother me at all,” Garner said. “If I’m his fullback and I’m blocking for him, if he gets Affholter’s record, that means I’m doing my job.”

Said Stein: “I can see why Jess would be jealous. It would bother me. But I don’t think he is.”

Stein and Garner say that, because of Oak Park’s size, both they and their team have been overlooked. Tonight’s game against Carpinteria, they say, will give them a chance to show what they can do against a team with an outstanding reputation.

Carpinteria defeated Oak Park, 48-0, last season and was 14-0 en route to the Tri-Valley League and Inland Conference championships. Carpinteria is 4-2 this season.

“I really believe we can beat them,” Garner said. “We added two plays and our blocking hasn’t changed much. Carpinteria is our rival of the league. We have to beat them to win league title.”

Last season, Stein and Garner went from the backfield to the backcourt, where they were the starting guards on the basketball team. Garner, however, will skip basketball this year to concentrate on football and track. He joins Stein on the defending 1-A Southern Section champion 400- and 1,600-meter relay teams and participates in the high jump and 300 low hurdles.

Helping Oak Park advance through the football playoffs is their immediate goal. But that doesn’t stop them from a little innocent daydreaming.

Garner has a recurring thought. He’s on the field at the Coliseum, donned in the cardinal and gold of USC as a defensive back. Playing in front of 100,000 fans, a Rose Bowl berth rides on the outcome.

Across the line, wearing the blue and gold of UCLA, is Stein.

Garner will be the first to admit that the scenario is unlikely. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

“I’d love to go to UCLA with him, get to be on the same team and room with him,” Garner said. “I just don’t think that UCLA would go out and give two scholarships to two running backs from a small school like Oak Park. Jason’s the big name.”

So what happens?

“Jason thinks he’ll burn me long for the touchdown,” Garner said. “I don’t know about that.”


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