The Orange County high school football season kicks off tonight with a match-up of contenders-to-be in Division III--Santa Ana and Esperanza.
Unfortunately, the game comes at a time when Esperanza is weakened because of injuries to key players.
Starting fullback Mark Parlin, a junior, turned his ankle on the first day the players practiced in pads and sophomore Garrick Emry (6-feet-9, 195 pounds) will start in his place. Senior safety/ wide receiver Greg Hauser, an all-Empire League selection as a junior, tore cartilage in his left knee in two-a-day drills two weeks ago and will be out three to four weeks recovering from surgery.
"That puts a dent in the passing game. That hurts us a little bit," Coach Gary Meek said. "We are coming off a season we were pretty disappointed in. Our offense just didn't evolve very well. We had a young quarterback and we just didn't put points on the board."
It's best to be at full strength against a team such as Santa Ana. The Saints, ranked fourth in the Southern Section preseason poll, are seeking their fourth consecutive Century League championship under Coach Dick Hill.
The Saints also have the county's best defensive lineman and possibly the best player period in senior Oscar Wilson (6-3, 235), who also will play tight end.
Senior tailback Garner Hicks, though he shared his time in the backfield, rushed for 705 yards and six touchdowns, averaging about six yards a carry.
Dan Tuioti, an all-league selection at linebacker, started the first seven games at quarterback last year. He is moving to fullback to make way for Jesse Rosas, who stepped in when Tuioti was injured against El Modena. Rosas went on to throw for 489 yards and four touchdowns in his next four starts.
With Rosas at quarterback, the Saints might trade their predictable running game for some passing fancy.
But Esperanza Coach Gary Meek still believes stopping the Saints' ground game is key.
"We just have to be able to contain them on the perimeters," said Meek, whose Aztecs are ranked ninth and missed the playoffs last season for the first time in 13 years. "You can't let Hicks get outside on you. He is probably one of the better backs we will face all year. You can't let them get outside and break the big one."
Meek does not put much stock in his team's preseason ranking. "Preseason rankings are just preseason rankings," he said. "Nobody has played anybody . . . there are going to be a lot of mistakes and a lot of things that go wrong, and you just have to hope you do a few things right. I want us to be able to play well. That's what I'm looking for out of my team."
One of the players Meek is counting on is quarterback Keith McDonald, who started last season as a sophomore and has improved over the summer.
"He has always had a strong arm, but he has refined his touch and is much more of a leader this year than he was last year in regards to running the team," Meek said. McDonald has solid receivers in Jerod Smith, Reid Tullen and the injured Hauser.
Last year, McDonald completed 47 of 124 passes for 606 yards and three touchdowns. He also threw 12 interceptions--another key to tonight's game. The Saints intercepted 18 passes last year.
Esperanza is no slouch on defense, however. The very big, very physical and very mobile Keith Navidi (6-6, 260) returns for his senior season at tackle. He was one of the reasons the Aztecs held seven opponents to fewer than 14 points last season. He had 10 sacks, 15 tackles for losses, 39 lead tackles, 55 assists, four deflections and two fumble recoveries.
Still, a healthier Esperanza would make for a more competitive game, but with the Aztecs' injuries, Santa Ana should win easily.
Tonight's other games:
CANYON at CORONA--Canyon is in the midst of a 17-game winless streak, and the Comanches will have a rough time against Corona--a contender in Division V. Corona was 1-29 from 1985-87 and hadn't had a winning season since 1976. All that changed last year when Coach David Perkins took the team to the division semifinals. Thirteen starters return from that team. Sophomore Steve Bernier is the quarterback and kicker Jeff McDaniel will give them an edge. Junior Terry Keten rushed for more than 800 yards in 10 games, and offensive tackle Isaac McCorkell is a key, too.
The Comanches have their third new coach, Loren Shumer, in as many years. Chuck Nickerson will be at quarterback. If he can get protection, Nickerson has a good target in wide receiver Marcus Mitchell. Jason Rogers (5-11, 200), a transfer from Servite, is the running back.
EL DORADO vs. EL TORO at Mission Viejo--El Dorado's first-year coach, Rick Jones, has only four experienced players returning. El Toro has nine returning starters, including quarterback Steve Stenstrom, the best in the South Coast League. Stenstrom completed 115 of 205 passes for 1,744 yards and 14 touchdowns. If that's not enough to make El Toro the favorite, consider this: The Chargers have qualified for the playoffs the past 10 seasons under Coach Bob Johnson.
El Dorado will have to contend with tight end Bo Haley, a three-year starter, as well as a stable of running backs. The Chargers' defense is suspect, but El Dorado may not have the personnel to test it. Moving up from the sophomore team is junior quarterback Travis Thompson. Linebacker/running back Brian Wolf and tight end/linebacker Brian Hayes also are key players.
LOARA at WESTERN--One of the more even matchups. Loara tied for fourth place in the Empire League last season while Western grabbed the third playoff spot in the Orange League. Western has the edge in experience with 10 returning starters, but the Pioneers will have to stop a healthy Coy Collins. Collins, a senior, rushed for 799 yards in eight games as a sophomore, but was hampered by an ankle injury last year. MARINA vs. LOS ALAMITOS at Gahr--It's the top against the bottom in this game. Los Alamitos is the top-ranked team in The Times' preseason poll and second-ranked in the Southern Section preseason poll. Marina has Orange County's longest losing streak--15 games.
Griffin quarterback Todd Gragnano is back. He threw for more than 2,000 yards in each of the past two seasons and led his team to the Division finals both years. And the fastest running back in the county, Erik Mitchell, transferred from Mayfair.
John Seeley, Marina's new coach, says the Vikings will be more competitive, but don't look for it to happen in this game.
GARDEN GROVE vs. SAVANNA at Glover Stadium--Garden Grove lost key starters--quarterback, tailback, fullback and the entire offensive line--from a team that went 0-10 last year. Maybe those absent players shouldn't be considered losses. Running back Alex Ripley is one to watch. Junior quarterback Bob Ioja will have his eyes on wide receiver Joe Squyres.
Savanna has won only six games in the past five seasons. The Rebels' lone victory last season was at Garden Grove's expense, so count on some intensity in this game.
Savanna gets the edge because of experience. Quarterback Carlos Robledo and solid running back--senior Kenison PoChing return. The Rebels have a new coach, former Valencia assistant Fred DiPalma.