A simple history lesson indicates there’s little chance anyone but an Orange County school will win the Division III championship.
County schools have won the title 10 times since the division was established 11 years ago. Lynwood High School is the exception, but it had to go into overtime to defeat El Modena, 14-13, in 1980.
El Toro and Santa Ana have dominated the division (formerly the Southern Conference) in recent years. Santa Ana won the title in 1985 and El Toro in 1986. The teams played a memorable semifinal game last year in the rain with El Toro winning in the final seconds en route to a second title.
The teams won’t waste any time getting together in the playoffs this year, meeting in the opening round of the 16-team division on Friday night in Santa Ana Stadium.
El Toro (6-4) has struggled in recent weeks, allowing 603 yards rushing in its last 2 games. But the ever-optimistic Bob Johnson, El Toro coach, said Monday, “We have a chance. There is a new season starting, and we’ve been known to get up for that season.”
Santa Ana (7-3) enters the game with a quarterback who is starting only his fourth game and one of its best defensive players who’s ailing.
Jesse Rosas has replaced Dan Tuioti at quarterback and has been steady if unspectacular. Defensive end Damon Bland has been hampered by a nagging back injury for 3 weeks.
The best bet to prolong the county’s domination is top-seeded Mission Viejo. The Diablos (10-0) have a quality quarterback in Troy Kopp, a veteran offensive line, physical defensive linemen and the ever-explosive Eric Ekdahl in the backfield.
“Their defense is excellent,” El Modena Coach Bill Backstrom said. “But I also think they’re beatable. The division looks wide open to me.”
The last time Mission Viejo entered the playoffs with a 10-0 record, it quickly exited. Leuzinger upset Mission Viejo in the first round of the Central Conference playoffs in 1979.
But Mission Viejo will enter the single-elimination tournament with the memory of last year’s 7-6 semifinal loss to Los Alamitos on a rain-soaked field in Orange Coast College’s LeBard Stadium.
A rematch with Los Alamitos in the championship game this year is likely. Second-seeded Los Alamitos (9-0-1) has outscored opponents, 282-58. But some question the quality of Los Alamitos’ opposition.
The Griffins beat four nonleague opponents with a combined record of 7-31-1. They were undefeated in Empire League play, but only two other league teams had winning records.
Still, it’s difficult to argue against Los Alamitos’ record of 47-9 over the past 5 years.
Looking for a dark horse? Consider El Modena (5-5). The Vanguards opened the season with four losses, but three of them came against playoff-bound teams by an average margin of fewer than 8 points.
Dominguez (9-1) has the best chance among the seven teams outside the county of winning the division. Dominguez has qualified for the playoffs the past 2 years, losing in the first round to Santa Ana in 1986 and Santa Monica in 1987.
“We’ve had a problem getting past that first-round hump,” Dominguez Coach Willie Donnerson said.
Dominguez won the San Gabriel Valley League title by utilizing the talents of 6-foot 4-inch, 235-pound fullback Bruce Walker in a Delaware Wing-T offense. The league is dominated by running teams and Donnerson questioned how any of the league’s four representatives would handle a passing team.
“My team averages five passes a game, so if we go against a passing team, we may be in trouble,” Donnerson said. “I don’t think anyone in our league is accustomed to a passing team like Los Alamitos or El Toro.”
Jerry Witte, Saddleback coach, predicted Dominguez would fare well in the division. Witte’s team lost to Dominguez, 20-7, in the third week of the season.
“They have size, speed and play physical, disciplined football,” Witte said. “They’re the type of team that could go a ways in the playoffs. That 9-1 record was no fluke.”
Three members of the Foothill League--Schurr, Burbank and Hart--join the division playoffs for the first time and few regard them as contenders. Ken Davis, veteran coach at Schurr, even discounted his team’s chances of winning a playoff game.
“If yesterday’s practice is any indication, this (opener against Cerritos) will be our last game,” he said. “We don’t even belong in the division.
“We’re playing with 160-pound linemen and they’re putting us in a division with El Toro and El Modena, who have produced some outstanding Division I college players. We haven’t had a Division I player here in my 16 years.”
DIVISION VIII IN A BOX
Formerly known as: Southern Conference.
Defending Champion: El Toro.
Top Teams: Mission Viejo, Los Alamitos and Santa Ana.
Dark Horse Teams: El Modena and El Toro.
Best Draw: Los Alamitos meets Foothill, which has struggled to score, in the first round and would play the winner of Schurr- Cerritos. Should advance to the semifinals.
Worst Draw: Century League champion Santa Ana opens with two-time defending champion El Toro.
Key Players: Slotback Eric Ekdahl (Mission Viejo), quarterback Troy Kopp (Mission Viejo), quarterback Todd Gragnano (Los Alamitos), fullback-defensive end Bruce Walker (Dominguez), running back Estrus Crayton (Santa Ana) and defensive end Oscar Wilson (Santa Ana).
Noteworthy: The division is 11 years old and county schools have won 10 titles; El Toro has advanced at least to semifinals 5 consecutive years.