Santa Ana Valley Hopes to Rise Up and Pose Threat to Big Three

Times Staff Writer

From a logical point of view, handicapping the Century League football race is easy.

El Modena. Foothill. Santa Ana.

No Century League race would be complete without one or more of those three teams. Logic dictates they will be contenders again this season.

But consider this from El Modena Coach Bill Backstrom: "I saw (Santa Ana Valley Coach) Dan Castanon a few times over the summer and he always had a big smile on his face. He even told me he's feeling pretty good these days."

That worries Backstrom.

Seems Castanon has a lot to be happy about.

Sure, the Falcons haven't been to the Southern Section playoffs in 10 years. And they have only eight victories in the four years under Castanon.

But . . .

"This year we actually have athletes who have been in the program for four years," Castanon said. "The first couple years, it was tough just fielding a team. Now we have 37 kids who are excited about playing football."

Of the 37, 12 were starters last season, including seven linemen. Seven very big linemen.

The offensive front, which has four starters back, averages 237 pounds. The best of the bunch is Isaac Alo, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound guard/defensive tackle.

"Valley's problem over the last few years is the lack of experienced linemen," Backstrom said. "They have always had good skill-position players and now they have the linemen."

Although the Falcons were 3-6-1 in 1989, they were 2-0 in league play before losing consecutive games to Foothill, El Modena and Santa Ana. Santa Ana Valley finished fourth.

"They were the best 3-7 (3-6-1) team I've ever seen," said Loren Shumer, the first-year coach at Canyon. "I told Don he could take any five of my kids if I could have just two of his linemen."

Although Castanon said this might be the best Santa Ana Valley team in 10 years, he's not predicting great things just yet. Tradition is still with the big three of Santa Ana, El Modena and Foothill.

"The last two years, we've needed just one victory to make the playoffs," Castanon said. "Something always happened to mess us up. Let's wait and see."

A look at the teams:

CANYON--The Comanches have lost 12 consecutive games and have not won in 17 games. The closest they've come was a 7-7 tie with Santa Ana Valley in 1987. Canyon also has its third coach in as many seasons.

Shumer, who has been an assistant at the school for 12 years, has tempered his expectations.

"Normally a first-year coach will try to build the kids up by talking about winning games," Shumer said. "If I did that they'd tell me, 'We heard all of that last year and lost 10 games.' We're not speaking in terms of wins and losses this season. We just want the kids to play hard."

Shumer hopes to pass more this season and will be counting on senior Chuck Nickerson (6-1, 175) to do the throwing. Nickerson started three games for the Comanches last season, but spent more time eluding rushers than throwing to receivers.

"Chuck got a little shellshocked last year," Shumer said. "We threw him in at the end of the season and he wasn't quite ready."

The running game will be handled by Jason Rogers (5-11, 200), who was ineligible to play with the varsity last season after transferring from Servite.

EL MODENA--One point was all that kept the Vanguards from winning the league title last season as El Modena lost, 7-6, to Santa Ana.

The Vanguards reached the Southern Section Division III semifinals and have nine starters back.

"All three years I've been head coach, I've done something crazy," Backstrom said. "I started a sophomore at quarterback."

Barring injury, that string will be broken as junior Adam Garcia (5-10, 150) will retain the job, unlike predecessors Marcus Esposito and Trey Frank.

Of course, just in case, Backstrom has sophomore Jose Prado (5-9, 155) waiting in the wings.

Last season, Garcia became the starter in the third game and finished with more than 1,300 yards passing. Garcia, 127 pounds last season, has gained 23 pounds during the winter, which will make him more durable as a runner.

Sophomore Tom Mazzone (6-0, 170) will get the first crack at tailback, replacing the graduated Esposito. Jason Sharpe (5-9, 155) and Ryan Ogden (5-9, 180) also will see time.

The defense has several holes to fill, but there are some key people back. Eric Davis (6-3, 220) returns at defensive tackle, David Cloer (5-10, 175) and Kevin Giordano (5-10, 160) return at linebackers and Mike Vermillion (5-10, 175) returns at defensive back.

FOOTHILL--The Knights have seven players back from a defense that allowed only 9.4 points per game last season. They also have only one player returning from an offense that averaged only 9 points per game.

So things might be looking up.

Marty McWhinney succeeds Jerry Howell as coach. McWhinney won a Southern Section title at La Canada in 1979.

The defense will be asked to produce again this season. At least until the offense develops.

First and foremost on the defensive side are linebackers Jamal Duff (6-7, 230) and Jason Hairston (6-3, 225). Both were all-league selections last season.

"Right now, the defense is definitely the bright spot," McWhinney said. "With Duff and Hairston, we have two of the best linebackers in the county."

Guard David Ackerman (6-1, 230) is the only returning starter on offense.

Foothill stuck to the ground last season. That will change as McWhinney will ask senior quarterback John Shanahan (5-10, 160) to make the Knights more balanced.

SANTA ANA--The Saints will be trying for their fourth consecutive league championship and might have the talent to accomplish that task.

"We have a good nucleus this season, but it all depends on how much we grow and develop," Coach Dick Hill said.

Santa Ana has five all-league players returning, including senior Oscar Wilson (6-3, 235), who is considered the best defensive lineman in the county.

For most of last season, the Saints were a predictable team. Running backs Garner Hicks and Estrus Clayton combined for nearly 1,400 yards rushing.

Hicks (6-0, 180), who rushed for 705 yards in 1988, returns.

But the Saints are expected to throw more.

Danny Tuioti (6-0, 210), who started the first seven games at quarterback last season, moves to fullback. He'll be replaced by Jesse Rosas (6-1, 180), who started the final five games.

When Tuioti was injured against El Modena, Rosas stepped in and guided the Saints to the winning touchdown. Rosas pased for 489 yards and four touchdowns in his next four starts.

The defensive front is formidable, with Wilson, Herb Prawl (6-0, 210) and Oswaldo Guerra (6-2, 210). All three were all-league selections as juniors.

Tuioti, a senior, will start at linebacker, where he was an all-league selection.

SANTA ANA VALLEY--Besides Alo, the Falcons have Loren Ragland (6-4, 290), Auega Tali (6-4, 280) and Derek Pickford (5-10, 200) returning on the offensive line. The only newcomer is center Robert Moline (5-11, 200), who was a spot starter at guard and tight end.

But the line is not the only spot where the Falcons have talent. Quarterback Gary Graves (5-9, 170), who started the final six games, returns.

Also returning is running back Jesse Brooks (5-10, 182), who gained more than 600 yards last season. Brooks will be pressed, though, by James Barclay (5-7, 165), a sophomore who runs a 4.5 40-yard dash.

The defense is strong up front. Alo and Santiago Avalos (5-10, 240) return at tackles and Coury Martinez (5-9, 175) is back at linebacker.

However, the secondary is inexperienced. Rome Manson (5-9, 155), Scottie Strong (5-10, 165) and Michael Castleberry (5-10, 155) are talented but untested.

VILLA PARK--The Spartans have 55 players but only six are returning starters. Still, this senior class was 9-1 as sophomores and won the league championship.

"This group has a pretty good attitude and the leadership is there," Coach Pat Mahoney said. "Problem is, everyone we play is tougher this year."

All six returning starters are on defense, where Villa Park gave up 28 or more points four times in 1988.

Mahoney said the strength is at linebacker, as Shawn Potter (5-10, 170), Garrett Johnson (6-0, 187) and John Olea (5-10, 205) return. Defensive lineman Brian Pearall (6-2, 215) is also back.

"Hopefully, our defense will be more consistent this season," Mahoney said. "We'd play great, then have a breakdown and it would cost us."

Senior Eric Helms (6-3, 190) and junior Jason Martian (5-10, 180) will alternate at quarterback, at least early in the season. Helms is the better thrower and Martian the better runner.

Neither saw much action in 1988.

"Sure we're inexperienced at quarterback, which means they'll make mistakes," Mahoney said. "But, hopefully, they'll make some big plays too."

Potter, Gary Bladow (6-1, 178) and James Hong (5-9, 165) will form a committee at tailback. Ryan Smith (5-10) returns at fullback.

1988 Overall, League Records in Parentheses

SCHOOL '89 COMMENT Santa Ana (7-5, 5-0) Wilson and four other all-league selections return. El Modena (7-6, 4-1) QB Garcia is dangerous passer and runner. Foothill (5-6, 3-2) Duff, Hairston league's best defensive duo. Santa Ana Valley (3-6-1, 2-3) Offensive line averages 237 pounds. Villa Park (2-8, 1-4) Six starters return on defense. Canyon (0-10, 0-5) New coach, but 17-game winless streak.

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