HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL PREVIEW : Bell Gardens, El Rancho Get Set for Only Game That Really Matters

Times Staff Writer

What a night it should be Oct. 6 at Bell Gardens High School when, in damp air thick with excitement and the perfume from an overflow crowd, Bell Gardens and El Rancho play the only game that really matters to them.

Though very young, the football rivalry between the schools, begun in 1982, has become special to the players, coaches and fans. "You replay the game over and over all year," said Bell Gardens Coach Dave Newell.

Five of the seven games were won in the last minute. Bell Gardens leads the series, 5-2. On six occasions the game determined the Whitmont League champion, Bell Gardens winning the title four times and El Rancho twice. (Montebello won in 1987.)

"But it's really never about the championship, that's always secondary," Newell said.

Most of all, the game is for pride.

"They think of themselves as tough, disciplined Hispanic kids," Newell said of El Rancho. "And we have tough, disciplined Hispanic kids who think they're tougher than they are."

Newell is tough himself. Red-faced and broad-backed, he rages at his players in a manner that always seems to be at odds with the fondness he displays for them off the field.

In his 12 years as head coach, Bell Gardens has won 100 games, and in the last seven years is 43-6 in league games. The stinging memory of the late '60s, during which the Lancers lost 48 straight games, has been soothed.

El Rancho has a longer winning tradition. Dons Coach Dick Shelko said that the Pico Rivera school, which 20 years ago played in the Moore League, has won 67% of its games since 1951.

"It's like a family here," said Shelko, a white-haired, 290-pound man of 50. "People who went here are always coming back. It's great."

The series started thrillingly in 1982 when the Lancers won, 25-24, on a last-minute touchdown drive. "That kind of set the tone and helped our confidence," Newell said.

Bell Gardens won again the next year, 13-6, when Lenny Barton, now the team's quarterback coach, picked up the ball after a bad snap on a field-goal attempt and threw to Johnny Salas in the end zone.

The only lopsided games came the next two years, Bell Gardens winning, 24-0, in 1984, and the Dons getting revenge, 36-15, in 1985.

Ramirez Gained 176 Yards

Another last-minute drive gave Bell Gardens a 20-14 victory in 1986 but El Rancho came back in the same manner to win, 12-7, in 1987. Last season, Rudy Ramirez gained 176 yards and dove into the end zone in overtime to give the Lancers a 30-27 victory.

The two teams--with their run-oriented offenses and eight-man defensive lines--have dominated the Whitmont League, particularly the Whittier area schools, Whittier, La Serna and California. Newell said it is because of toughness.

"Tough kids will beat out bigger, faster skill players," he said. "If you have little guys, to be good you have to be tough. Our style is intimidation. We play a very aggressive, attacking defense. We always have little guys who can really hit you. It's blue-collar football, blocking and tackling."

Don Peterson, who coached the Dons for 12 years until Shelko took over two years ago, said the communities in which the schools are located breed the attitudes the players bring to football.

"It is required of them to be physically and mentally tough when they grow up," said the lean Peterson, who wears suits instead of coaching attire now that he is an administrator at the school.

If the El Rancho players were to ride a bus 15 minutes west to the Bell Gardens campus and put on Lancer uniforms, Newell said he would hardly be able to tell the difference.

"They're like a mirror of us," he said. "They'd all have big hearts and short haircuts and they'd line up and practice till you told them to stop."

Because the students at each school have friends or relatives at the other, the week of the big game is always charged with rumors. Who's hurt? Who's sick? Who's mad at the coach?

"It's a constant feeding line," Newell said.

A couple of years ago, a Bell Gardens student who was the girlfriend of an El Rancho player wore his letter jacket to school during the week of the game. The Bell Gardens players grabbed it off of her, threw mud and shaving cream on it and ran it up the flagpole.

'Wouldn't Last Long'

"I don't think our guys are tough enough to tear a coat off a girl," Shelko said last week before a practice.

Newell knows Shelko was joking. "A Bell Gardens jacket wouldn't last long on the El Rancho campus," Newell said.

But despite the spirited nature of the rivalry, it has been a clean one. The game always ends with both teams gathered at midfield for a prayer.

"In some rivalries, coaches hate each other," Peterson said. "That's not true with this one. Our staff has a great respect for their staff."

"We've never had a fight on the field," said Newell. "I can't remember a guy being thrown out of a game. The respect is there."

Newell said that after the game former El Rancho players will come down from the stands to shake his hand. "It's been kind of special for me," Newell said. "They had a safety there, back in '83 or '84, David Cruz. When I see him, it's like he was part of my own team."

Bell Gardens is leaving the Whitmont League next year to join Schurr, Montebello, Arcadia, San Gabriel and Alhambra in a new, yet unnamed league. But the rivalry with El Rancho will go on.

"We're always going to keep that game," Newell said.

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