It's a new year for high school football in the San Gabriel Valley, and little has happened during the off-season to significantly change the status quo.
The teams that ranked best in the valley last season--Bishop Amat, Muir and Los Altos--are expected to lead the pack again.
About the only point in question is whether Bishop Amat or Muir is the No. 1 team.
That question could be answered when the teams clash in a non-league game Sept. 29 at Bishop Amat in La Puente. Bishop Amat appears to be slightly ahead in the race for the top spot.
Both have winning traditions, a surplus of quality players and strong hopes of winning CIF Southern Section division championships. Bishop Amat competes in Division I and Muir in Division II.
Defending Southern Section Division IV champion Los Altos looms as the next best team. The Conquerors were one of two valley teams, along with San Marino in Division VII, to capture Southern Section championships in 1988.
Other teams that figure to rank among the valley's best include Baldwin Park, Northview, Damien, Wilson, Glendora, Claremont and San Marino.
Here is a look at the top teams:
THE TOP 10 1--Bishop Amat (Angelus League; Division I)--Just about everybody is predicting another big year for the Lancers. Everybody except Bishop Amat Coach Mark Paredes, who says he has lingering concerns.
"Last year I was unsure going in because we didn't have any big names," said Paredes, whose team wound up with an 11-3 record and reached the Division I final. "Going in this year we have those people. I just don't know if we have the other guys, and that's important. I just don't know if we should be ranked that high."
Perhaps there is a little cause for concern. On the other hand, how many prep coaches can say they have two All-American receivers?: wide receiver Jeremy Smith (5-11, 185) and tight end Jason Green (6-3, 220) have been heavily recruited.
The explosive Smith, who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds, caught 82 passes for 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns and returned two punts for touchdowns last season. Green, who runs the 40 in 4.6 and is a great leaper, had 36 receptions for 605 yards and eight touchdowns.
"They have the potential to score at any time," Paredes said. "They have the speed and skill that any time they touch the football they can score."
While Smith and Green will be in the spotlight, the Lancers also have several other dangerous weapons: tailback Motu Ili (5-9, 215), who rushed for a team-leading 633 yards and eight touchdowns last season, and wide receiver Tim Aguayo (5-11, 173), who had 17 receptions. Bishop Amat also has an outstanding place-kicker, Eric White.
The biggest question may be at quarterback where untested junior Zach Zertuche (6-0, 183) takes over for All-CIF signal-caller Brian Harmon.
The Lancers have their typical good size on the line with center Joe Patterson (6-3, 245), tackle Ryan Ragano (6-0, 220) and guard Dan Wills (6-1, 200).
The defense, which returns three starters, also is a concern for Paredes: "We have a lot of holes to fill but we have some good athletes," he said. The leaders are lineman Alex Pacheco (5-9, 215), linebacker Rocky Wenrick and defensive backs Marty Avalos and Paul Moetului.
2--Muir (Pacific; Division II)--John Tyree, first-year coach of the Mustangs, does not place much credence in preseason polls. The coach has a more lofty goal:
"My goal is to be in that 14th game. "No. 1 at the beginning doesn't mean that much to me. It's the last one that counts."
With 15 starters and several other key lettermen returning from a team that finished 8-4 and reached the division quarterfinals, it's no wonder why the Mustangs are thinking big.
Muir probably has more speed and size than any other team in the valley. Just how much speed astounded the coach when he first timed the Mustangs in the 40-yard dash. "We had five guys that ran 4.4," he said. "I couldn't believe it. It almost knocked my eyes out."
The most impressive athlete for Muir could be All-American tight end Elic Mahone (6-5, 215), who caught 23 passes last season and runs the 40 in 4.5. He also stars at defensive end. "He's what you call a target," Tyree said. "You get a lot of mismatches with him out there."
Muir, which will shift between the run-oriented wishbone and pass-oriented run and shoot offenses, will be directed by junior quarterback Demetrius Martin, an excellent passer and runner. The backfield also consists of fullback Reggie Hunt (6-0, 215) and halfbacks Sam Williford (6-2, 195) and Vince Milton, a 4.4 speedster. Another speed merchant is wide receiver Lamar Colbert.
The Mustangs complement their speed with a huge offensive line that includes guards Orlando Benn (6-4, 308) and Johnny Drawn (6-3, 255) and tackles Sean Callum (6-3, 238) and Mudie Mushonga (6-3, 242).
Many of the same faces will rotate on the defensive front, including Mahone, Hunt, Benn, Drawn, Callum and Mushonga. Other leaders on defense are linebacker Paul Joiner (6-0, 215) and a fast secondary that consists of Dustyn Benedict, Reggie Resar, Terry White and Stefan Crutchfield. White and Resar run the 40 in 4.4.
3--Los Altos (Sierra; Division IV)--It would be easy for Coach Dwayne DeSpain and the Conquerors to become caught up in their success.
That can happen when your team has won the division title two of the last three years, made three straight appearances in the division final, won three championships this decade and reached the playoffs 17 straight seasons.
However, while the Conquerors are ranked No. 1 in the division once again, DeSpain does not want his team to become complacent.
"We're ranked at the top because of our tradition, and it's based on a lot of press clippings," said DeSpain, who has amassed an impressive record of 187-62-7 with seven Southern Section titles in 23 years as coach at Los Altos. "We can't worry about those things."
With 12 starters returning from a 13-1 squad, complacency may be the only thing that stops the Conquerors.
Los Altos has five starters returning on offense, including its entire starting backfield of running backs Roger Boden (5-11, 170) and Fernando Zambrano (5-7, 155) and quarterback Mike Allen (6-4, 200). Boden, who has 4.5 speed in the 40, rushed for 1,164 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Allen, a starter as a sophomore, passed for 1,227 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Other leaders on offense include tackles Mike Collins (6-4, 220) and Art Lora, guard Billy Patterson, center Javier Villanueva (6-3, 250), wide receiver Todd Slosek and place-kicker Courtney Smith.
Collins may make even more of an impact at defensive end where. DeSpain says, "He's one of the finest blocking tackles I've seen at this school in years. He might be the best."
Two other fierce hitters in an experienced defensive unit are linebacker Bryan Carr (6-2, 215) and end Joey Castillo (6-0, 220). The Conquerors have two other standouts on the line in Sean O'Dwyre and Bobby Fanning and a strong secondary that includes Alex Salgado and Craig Young.
4--Baldwin Park (Sierra; Division IV)--You might expect that things would be a little easier for Tony Zane in his second year as coach of the Braves.
Especially after an impressive inaugural season in which he replaced successful longtime Coach Trifone Pagone, moved up from the Montview League to the more competitive Sierra League and guided his team to a 7-4 record and he Division IV playoffs.
Unfortunately, Zane says, that is hardly the case.
"Last year, going into a new league, I don't think people expected us to do as well as we did," Zane said. "This year everyone expects us to do well and there's a little more pressure. Everyone wants to beat us."
On the bright side, Zane can console himself with the fact that Baldwin Park returns the leading passer in the valley from last season--senior Richard Robles (5-10, 165). Robles completed 176 of 318 passes for 2,688 yards and 22 touchdowns.
The Braves also return running back Christian Torres (5-8, 165), who rushed for 806 yards and eight touchdowns in 133 carries as a junior, and have the makings of a good offensive line with senior guard David Dunkleman (5-10, 205) and junior tackle Peter Medrano (6-3, 230).
The key will be replacing the team's top three wide receivers, who have graduated, but Zane thinks he has suitable replacements, including speedy senior Duane Williams (5-8, 155). "They're real small, but they're a good group and a little quicker (than last year)."
Baldwin Park returns starters on defense in Dunkleman at linebacker, Fernando Arredondo at nose guard, Ricardo Tapia (6-2, 230) at tackle and Raul Romo at end.
5--Northview (Valle Vista; Division IV)--If the offense for the Vikings bears an uncanny resemblance to the formations of Baldwin Park, there is a simple explanation: The first-year coach of Northview, Kevin Gair, was an assistant at Baldwin Park for the last 13 years. He has installed a pass-oriented offense, similar to the successful one used by Baldwin Park, that utilizes four receivers and one running back.
Gair is confident the offense will work just as well for Northview, which has won three straight league titles and finished 10-2 last year. Just in case it does not, the coach has the luxury of falling back on All-CIF running back Marcus Green (6-0, 190).
The presence of the heavily recruited senior, who rushed for 1,203 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, may result in a little less passing for Northview. "I expect him to carry the football about twice as much as he did last year," Gair said. "We expect to run about half the time."
The rest of the time, Northview will rely on the passing of quarterback Darren Murphy and a tall group of wide receivers, including Robert Hodak (6-2, 185), Tyson Covey (6-3, 180) and Todd Quinsey (6-1, 180). Northview also returns tight end Steve Mikesell and has size on its line, including tackles Chris Dean (6-3, 215) and Pat O'Leary (6-2, 245).
Green is one of the leaders on defense at linebacker, along with linemen William Sanchez (5-11, 220), Anthony Fernandez (6-2, 215) and Brian Lanza (6-3, 235), linebackers Jesse Romero and Jesse Martinez and defensive backs Pete Loaiza, Rick MacFarlane and Hodak.
6--Damien (Baseline; Division IV)--Year in and year out, the Spartans produce plenty of talent. Only this season, Damien is even deeper.
With nine starters and 28 lettermen returning, and with the addition of standouts from its undefeated freshman and sophomore teams, Damien has the personnel to be considerably better than its 6-5 squad of last year. Coach Dick Larson said the catchword is consistency .
"We were very inconsistent last year," he said. "We're much quicker on offense and defense."
The offense returns several top seniors, including flanker Jeff Disbrow, who caught 25 passes for 306 yards and three touchdowns last year, wide receiver Brett Schuster, guard Mike DiGiovanna (6-0, 210) and punter-place-kicker Carlos Bustos. Larson also likes the prospects for his quarterback, Chad May (6-3, 200), a reserve as a junior.
But it is the juniors and sophomores on offense who bring a tone of excitement to Larson's voice. The juniors include guard Mike Balian (6-3, 245), fullbacks Travis Castadi (6-1, 205) and Eric Inclan (5-11, 195), tailback Alex Diaz and wide receiver Jamie Gutierrez. There is also promising sophomore tailback Jody Napuunoa (6-1, 175), who ran for 35 touchdowns for the freshman team.
The defense also is sprinkled with juniors such as Balian at tackle, Kurt Oliver (6-1, 220) at linebacker, and Scott Peterson at end. Top seniors include safeties Tim Snyder and Mike O'Toole and linemen Mark Morand and Tom Daley, and the Spartans have a college prospect in linebacker Travis Whisenant (6-1, 225).
7--Wilson (Sierra; Division IV)--After a horrendous start, the Wildcats won their final five games last season to reach the playoffs and finish at 5-6.
With 12 starters returning and excellent speed in the skill positions, Wilson should be more successful from the start.
"It meant a lot winning those last five ballgames," Coach David Merrill said. "It should be a good carry-over."
Leading the way for the Wildcats are quarterback Ryan Merrill (6-0, 160) and wide receiver Eric Olson (6-3, 175). Merrill, the coach's son, passed for 1,507 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior, and Olson, an all-league selection, had 35 receptions.
Wilson also has outstanding speed in the backfield with tailback Malcolm Thomas (5-11, 175), who runs the 40 in 4.5 seconds, and fullback Kofi Broadnax (5-11, 230), who runs it in 4.7, and a solid tight end in junior Steve Chiasson (6-4, 225).
"We have good backs and good receivers," Merrill said. "We haven't had this in a long time. That's why we're optimistic."
There is experience on the offensive line with guard Joe Brown (5-11, 220), tackle Cesar Aguilar and center Halsey Smith.
The leaders on defense include all-league linebacker Mike Phillips, linemen John Rafols and Grady Hahn and defensive backs Brian McKovic, Kyle Banner and Ismael Gonzalez.
8--Glendora (Baseline; Division IV)--Coach Dean Karnoski felt that his team might have been a little too optimistic before last season.
Stamped as the favorite to win the league title and one of the top teams in the valley, the Tartans stumbled to a 5-5 record and missed the playoffs.
So this year Glendora is tempering its enthusiasm.
"Last year we kind of felt things would just fall in our laps, and when they didn't we came back down to earth in a hurry," Karnoski said. "This year it's back to basics. We're more journeyman-like. We have a different attitude about it."
It helps to have 13 starters returning, including heavily recruited quarterback J.J. O'Laughlin (6-3, 200). Considered the top quarterback prospect in the valley, O'Laughlin completed 86 of 178 passes for 1,450 yards as a junior and is approaching 3,000 yards for his prep career.
Karnoski said those figures would have been even more impressive but "we probably dropped 400 to 500 yards worth of passes that were in the kids' hands."
Glendora returns two capable pass catchers in wide receiver Phil McGee and tight end Brad Baiotto (6-2, 195), and Karnoski is hoping that the return of juniors Bill Zernickow at tailback and Bob Baeza at fullback will help ease the pressure on O'Laughlin. It also helps to have four starting linemen returning, including big tackles Jason Tibbetts (6-0, 250) and Chris West (6-4, 225).
West, a college prospect, also anchors the defensive line at tackle. Other leaders on defense are linebackers Baiotto, Steve Jones and Jerry Lewellan and defensive back Tim Flynn.
9--Claremont (Baseline; Division IV)--At most schools, the thought of returning only four starters would be cause for alarm.
That is not the case at Claremont, where figures such as those never seem to get in the way of success. The Wolfpack, 10-3 and in the division semifinals, appear primed for another winning season.
Coach Bob Baiz says it may simply take his team a little longer than usual to get on track. "We're going to be fresh and young in the beginning, but we hope to be ready by the time league rolls around," he said.
Claremont may not possess quite as much size as some of its recent teams, although Baiz said the Wolfpack has outstanding team speed.
The defense will be led by returning starters Keith Conklin (6-0, 195) at middle guard and defensive ends Jesse Knapp (6-1, 205) and David Wang (5-10, 210). Other top defensive players include tackles Kenny Frietas (6-4, 200) and Mark Selden (6-0, 205), linebackers Roy Slater and James Rumbles and defensive backs Brian Lott and Adam Jones.
Lott will also play wide receiver, where he is the team's lone offensive starter returning. The Wolfpack has two other promising receivers in Brandy Braxton and Chris Brown, a transfer from San Diego who runs the 40 in 4.5 seconds.
Claremont also expects to be led on the line by tackle David Han (5-10, 215), guard Don McMartin (6-0, 235) and center Josh Lucas (6-1, 215), and the quarterback could be senior John Michel.
10--San Marino (Rio Hondo; Division VII)--After directing his school to a 12-0-1 record and its first division championship since 1964, Coach Bill Maloney admits that he has a tough act to duplicate.
"Winning the CIF and going undefeated just doesn't happen very often," Maloney said. "Being ranked No. 1 in most of the pre-season polls puts us under the gun right away. It puts a lot of pressure on us."
That is not to say the Titans do not have the personnel to win the title again. With 20 lettermen and the addition of players from an 8-1 sophomore team, San Marino should be in the championship race.
It helps to have quarterback Mark Ukropina (6-3, 225) and defensive back and running back Kevin Shanahan (5-11, 180) returning. Ukropina passed for 1,788 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, and Shanahan was named All-Southern Section at defensive back.
Three other starters returning are offensive tackle Jeff Dennis (6-3, 220) and defensive linemen Keith Brennan (6-3, 230) and Tyler Tripp (5-10, 180).
Among the top newcomers is junior lineman Nathan Olsen (6-2, 215), son of former National Football League star Merlin Olsen. Others are tailback Alphonso Montoyo and wide receiver Craig Milias.
The strength of San Marino last season was its defense. This time, Maloney said, it could be the offense.
"We allowed only about 3.3 points a game last year," he said. "We'll probably be a lot better offensively. Our offense is looking very good. Defensively we have some holes to fill."
Others to Watch Arroyo (Mission Valley; Division V)--The Knights enter this season in an unfamiliar position. For the first time in four years, Arroyo does not enter the season as defending Mission Valley League champion.
Fortunately for Arroyo, Coach Don MacKinnon's Knights return 14 starters from a team that was 10-2 and reached the division quarterfinals.
Foremost on the list are all-league seniors Darren MacLellan and Robert Kwan at running back. MacLellan rushed for 933 yards and 19 touchdowns last season, and Kwan ran for 433 yards and seven touchdowns.
Two other skill players are quarterback Cruz Alvarado, who will have the challenge of replacing All-CIF quarterback Willie Reyna, and wide receiver Freddie Martinez.
The Knights have one of their biggest offensive lines ever, including all-leaguers Jason Remus (6-0, 220) and Chris Jacobson (6-3, 215) and letterman Rob Hoyt (6-1, 235).
Arroyo is led on defense by MacLellan and Martinez at back, Kwan and Tony Garcia at linebacker and Alex Guerrero on the line.
Bassett (Montview; Division V)--It took only two seasons for Coach Mark Pettingill to transform the Olympians from a perennial second-division team into a league champion.
After finishing with an 8-3 record and making the division playoffs last season, Pettingill says the objective this year is to follow in the same direction.
"You have to win more than one year in a row to make them believe in you," he said. "We've worked very hard, the kids have worked very hard, and the community is behind us."
With 12 starters returning, including consensus All-American running back Marshawn Thompson (6-1, 200), the prognosis is good for another league title. Thompson, expected to carry the ball often in Bassett's power I offense, rushed for a valley-leading 1,701 yards and 16 touchdowns in 301 carries as a junior.
The Olympians have another college prospect in linebacker Richard Parham (6-3, 215). The defense, which returns seven starters, includes linemen Richard Pinedo and Eddie Lopez and defensive backs Mario Lopez, Sergio Loza and Jerry Torres.
In addition to Thompson, the offense will feature quarterback Sal Rios, lineman Alex Bermudez (6-0, 230) and Torres at flanker.
Ganesha (Hacienda; Division V)--It did not take long for Garry Norvell to reestablish Ganesha as a Hacienda League power after returning to coach the Giants last season.
The Giants posted a record of 8-3, placed second in the league and reached the division playoffs--pretty impressive when you consider Ganesha had finished 3-7 the previous year.
Norvell, who has a 90-45 record in 16 years of coaching the Giants, appears primed for a league championship this time, with the return of 10 starters and 22 lettermen.
Leading the way are running back Robert Hicks (5-11, 190) and quarterback Scott Flores (6-0, 170). Hicks rushed for 1,072 yards as a junior, and Flores passed for about 1,300. Two other standouts on offense are expected to be running back Reggie Miles and wide receiver Aaron Jones (6-1, 170).
On defense, Ganesha's top returning players include linemen Albert Parish (5-11, 220) and Jason Alexander (5-11, 215), linebacker Arthur Brown (6-0, 200) and defensive back Kevin Wilson.
Nogales (Sierra; Division IV)--After coaching Northview for nine years and winning Valle Vista League titles the last three seasons, Brian Beveridge hopes to bring similar success to Nogales, but he isn't speculating how soon it will happen.
"There are good athletes here, but the numbers are a little lower than I expected," Beveridge said. "It's going to take some time. It's not going to happen overnight. But I think we'll get there."
The Nobles return eight starters from a team that reached the division playoffs and finished 6-5 on the field before forfeiting all of their victories because they used an ineligible player. The leader is quarterback Jimmy Hunter (5-11, 175), a 4.6 speedster who adeptly runs the option and rushed for 550 yards in only 61 carries last season.
"He's just perfect for the type of offense that we ran at Northview with the option and the sprint-outs," Beveridge says. "He runs the option as well as anyone I've ever seen."
The offense also has running back Billy Ivey, an exceptional long jumper and triple jumper who transferred from league rival West Covina, linemen Gabe Ramirez and Todd Wilde and tight end Robert Johnson (6-0, 200). The defense is paced by tackle Damien Parker (5-10, 225), linebacker Louis Cuevas and defensive backs Anthony Palazuelos and Tyrone Edwards.
Pasadena (Pacific; Division II)--On paper, the prognosis is not good for the Bulldogs.
They return only one starter from a team that finished 7-4 and reached the division playoffs, and the Bulldogs face a non-league schedule that includes perennial powers Santa Monica, Palmdale and Serra.
"On paper it doesn't look good, but games are never won on paper," Coach Gary Griffiths said.
What Pasadena does have is its usual supply of talent in the skill positions. The young Bulldogs expect to be led on offense by senior Torus Stepney (5-11, 180) at halfback and quarterback Stacy Townsend (5-10, 160), a promising sophomore who will direct the wishbone.
The defense will revolve around defensive end Alan Williams (6-2, 200), the team's lone returning starter. Despite the inexperience, Griffiths is hopeful about his team.
"This ranks right up with my second team in experience, snd that team went all the way to the (division) semifinals," he said. "I think our kids will always be in the battle. The last five years we've been right there at the end."
Rosemead (Mission Valley; Division V)--At Rosemead, Coach Jim Hall is simply hoping for a repeat performance.
Hall said it was a morale booster for the school when the Panthers finished 7-4 and won the league title a year ago.
"It was a great feeling for our whole school to finally come back and win another championship after four years," he said. "The kids are still excited and want to repeat."
It is easier to have ambitions such as those when your team returns 13 starters. The Panthers graduated their offensive leader, running back Wolfe Payne Barber, but return eight offensive starters.
Most important is the return of all-league linemen Kent Koffler (6-2, 215), Steve Shull (6-0, 230) and Fahim Rahim (6-3, 205) and tight end Clint Kerr (6-1, 200). Other top veterans are fullback David Luminqued (6-2, 225), tailback Ruben Espinoza, quarterback Jesus Huerta and wide receiver Carlos Armendariz. "With the size of our offensive line, we think we can run and throw the ball well," Hall said.
Defensively, Rosemead will build around all-leaguers Rolando Cortez (6-2, 215) at tackle and Luminqued at linebacker. The Panthers have a fine secondary that includes cornerbacks Gabriel Salazar and Espinoza.
Temple City (Rio Hondo; Division VII)--Don't be surprised if the Rams get a little defensive this season.
They have nine starters from a team that finished 10-2-1 and advanced to the division semifinals, and seven are defensive players. "Right now we think the defense will have to carry us because we have some inexperienced people on offense," Coach Jim Walker said.
Among the top defenders are linebacker Matt Gilmour (6-4, 215) and cornerback Chris Antonio (5-10, 175). Also returning are tackles Bill Balenger and Tom Michaels, linebacker Pete Serrano and safety Chris Liu.
The offense has the ingredients for a strong line with all-leaguers Tom Blankenship at guard and David Woerz at tackle and junior tight end Sean Dublin.
The backfield should be headed by fullback Mickey Morell and quarterback Terry Fessler, a junior who replaces graduated All-CIF quarterback Ken Mushinskie.