Armando Gonzalez likes few things better than disappointing Division I football scouts who occasionally drop by a Franklin High practice. Seeing a recruiter leave baffled and disillusioned gives Gonzalez a feeling of accomplishment.
The Panthers have lost just 3 games in as many years and are vying for their third straight City Section 3-A title, but Gonzalez says most of his players are shorter and lighter than their opponents. Only 3 out of 49 players are taller than 6 feet.
“We are winning with lesser talent,” he said. “To be honest, we really don’t have Division I players.”
Franklin won the City 2-A championship in 1983 and moved up to the 3-A level the next season. At that point, Gonzalez, 38, took a 2-year hiatus to work as a fireman and the Panthers’ dominant record went down in flames. They finished 2-7 in 1984 and 5-3-1 the following year.
Gonzalez returned and led the team to a 10-2 record in 1986, an 11-1 record last year and back-to-back City titles. This season the Panthers are 8-0 and play at Wilson for the Northeast League championship at 8 p.m.
Gonzalez spares the superlatives when describing his undersized squad, but don’t think he merely put pads on a group of puny water boys and scrawny team managers. The Panthers do have bona fide standouts. Tailback Lamont Lovett has rushed for 1,701 yards in 198 carries and is the top back in the state, according to Cal-Hi Sports. Chad Infranca, who has seen limited action this year because of injuries, caught 63 passes for 1,030 yards and 17 touchdowns last season.
Coaching quarterbacks is Gonzalez’s forte, however. He has produced 4 All-City quarterbacks since 1980.
And though junior quarterback Santiago Alvarez’ stats aren’t quite as impressive as those of his predecessors, Gonzalez thinks he might have found another standout.
“He may not be All-City this year but he will be next year,” he said. “He started off like (an All-City quarterback) and he’s just dropped off, but we can’t put the blame on him. Our receivers haven’t been helping him and our line has missed some crucial blocks at times when we were throwing the football and it made him look bad.”
Gonzalez says area coaches often accuse him of recruiting players--an assertion he vehemently denies.
“We have dominated the area and the one thing that we take pride in is that, hey, we’re getting the same kids as you are. Anybody you see on our roster is a home-grown kid,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t think (other coaches) give us credit. People see a program succeed and do well and right away they try to find fault with you.”
Gonzalez speaks of his coaching prowess in bold, almost brazen, tones. His players even nicknamed him “The Pigeon” because of his prideful strut.
Art Noriega, the Panthers’ defensive coordinator, says the confidence is infectious.
“He’s an offensive whiz and he believes in his philosophy,” Noriega said. “He’s a winner just like I am.”
But last summer the team suffered a loss far greater than any on the field. On July 3, Jerrold Larranaga, a starting linebacker on the 1987 championship team, was killed when the car he was driving lost control and struck a parked tractor. Francisco Hernandez, a B-team lineman, was also killed.
Larranaga, a 1988 graduate, planned to become a fireman and was particularly close to Gonzalez. Gonzalez still struggles to come to terms with the tragedy.
“If I could change destiny I would give up anything for his life. I’m talking about championships. . .to see him walking,” Gonzalez said. “Things like that come in life sometimes and you have to go on. It hurts. It hurts dearly.”
The exceptional rapport between the Franklin coaching staff and the players has a lot to do with the team’s success, Gonzalez says. The coach, who was a wide receiver at Glendale College, will occasionally don his cleats and play quarterback for the scout offense during practice.
And in the off-season, the coaches give players humility lessons in 3-on-3 basketball games.
“We don’t get beat very often,” said Gonzalez of his 3-on-3 team. “And (the players) are always dogging us that we’re too old. We beat them and they give us respect.”
The Panthers took a big step toward respectability as a team, and silenced some cynics, by handing defending 4-A City champion Granada Hills (8-1) its only loss this season.
But Gonzalez isn’t sure about making the jump to the higher level. “My concern about playing 4-A is that we might take a pounding week after week,” he said. “But with our kids it’s a mental thing. If we were to be placed in the 4-A, by God, we’d be ready and we’re going to play some football.”