The 1989 football season should offer plenty of interest for fans of Orange County small schools. That is if Santa Margarita, a member of the Olympic League, doesn't steal the spotlight completely.
Santa Margarita, entering its first varsity season after playing a freelance schedule since opening two years ago, is being watched very carefully--whether it likes it or not.
The school, a $26 million, 40-acre production in the hills of eastern Orange County, has become an on-going controversy. Santa Margarita can draw student-athletes from around the county, and projects its enrollment, now about 900, to reach 2,000 in a few years--much to the chagrin of most public schools.
And Olympic League schools, which have an average enrollment of about 450 each, bristle at the thought of Santa Margarita becoming a permanent fixture in their league.
But until the matter is resolved, Santa Margarita Coach Jim Hartigan said the Eagles will concentrate on football.
"We haven't worried about it much," Hartigan said. "When they make the decision (about which league Santa Margarita goes to next year), we'll worry about it. We're just excited to be in a league and we feel very happy that the Olympic League will have us for now."
While Santa Margarita lies low, Whitter Christian, the second-ranked team in the Southern Section Division IV, appears to be one of the top contenders for the league title, along with defending-champion Valley Christian of Cerritos.
Whittier Christian has 24 lettermen returning, including 14 starters. Ron Papazian, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound fullback/linebacker, is one to watch. Last year, he gained 1,051 yards, averaging 6.4 yards a carry, and was the county's third-highest scorer with 22 touchdowns.
Orange Lutheran lost to graduation its best athlete in quarterback/defensive back Jason Neben--second last year to Servite's Derek Brown in rushing with 1,489 yards. Senior running back Gil Greene (846 yards, 13 touchdowns as a junior) will try to pick up the slack for the Lancers.
In the Arrowhead League, Southern California Christian hopes to capitalize with its experienced offensive and defensive lines, while Capistrano Valley Christian, with only three starters returning, figures to be rebuilding in 1989.
A closer look at the teams:
CAPISTRANO VALLEY CHRISTIAN--After a 1-9 season in 1988, it might pain Capistrano Valley Christian fans to hear that the Eagles are in a rebuilding year. But Coach Bob Denson says that's the case with only four lettermen returning.
Receiver Jason Rodarmel, one of the county's best, is the bright spot of the team. Last year, Rodarmel, an all-Southern Section Division IX first-team pick, led the county in receptions with 66 for 846 yards and eight touchdowns.
Another contributor for Capistrano will be Eagle quarterback Aaron Martin. Although Martin started only four games in place of the injured Bret Biegert last year, he was mainly used as a running back. Biegert's younger brother, junior running back Brian, is the team's only other returning starter.
Kevin Biniasz, a 6-4 190 tight end, returns after missing 1988 with a back injury, and Darren Crail, a 5-9 140 running back/linebacker, is, according to Denson, the other bright spot on the team.
ORANGE LUTHERAN--Losing Neben, a three-sport athlete, would hurt any team. Along with his 1,489 yards gathered in the Lancers' option, Neben, who attends Cal State Fullerton but does not compete in any sports, had five interceptions.
Greene, who ran a 4.6 in the 40, is the team's focal point this year, says Lancer Coach Bob Dowding. Aside from Greene, Orange Lutheran has 12 other starters returning, including Rodger Pagani, who will move from tackle to fullback/linebacker, Greg Pargee, an all-league defensive back, and Phil Nemeth, who plays kicker, tight end, safety and fullback as well as anyone on the team.
There are concerns at quarterback where Phil Matheson, a junior split end, or Lenny Gavin, a sophomore left-hander from the junior varsity, are contending.
In the past two years Orange Lutheran had records of 6-4 and 7-3, finishing third in the Olympic League without gaining a playoff berth. (The Olympic League automatically advances two teams to the playoffs, not three as most leagues do.)
"It's very frustrating to have to sit there and watch teams with worse records go on, Dowding."
SANTA MARGARITA--Although most consider Santa Margarita a growing evil empire, Hartigan notes that he has yet to have a senior on his team.
"Last year, I had a hard time scheduling because people would say 'Oh, you're that giant waiting to awaken,' Hartigan said. "We do have a good football team, in two years we've gone 16-3-1, but people forget we're still at the lowest level."
Because this is Santa Margarita's first varsity season, the Eagles have no returning starters. Nevertheless, there are plenty of players to watch.
Kicker Travis Lucero had field goals of 43 yards as a freshman, and 48 yards as a sophomore, according to Hartigan. Lucero gets tips from former San Diego Charger kicker Vince Abbott, who was a teammate of Hartigan's at Cal State Fullerton.
Quarterback Trevor Yankoff had 20 touchdowns--12 passing, 8 rushing--last year, and Hartigan describes him as a quick, scrambling type with great instincts. Although only a sophomore, Josh Ireland, with quick, deceptive moves, will start at tailback.
Even though Santa Margarita lacks size, 6-5, 280-pound offensive tackle Nathan Beckett shouldn't be taken lightly. "(He's) just starting to fill into his body . . . he's 15 years old and predicted to be 7-2," Hartigan said.
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA CHRISTIAN--The Flames were a try-out team in the Arrowhead League last year, going 7-3 overall before being eliminated in the first round of the Division IX playoffs by eventual champion Carpinteria.
Although SCC lost Jason Parks, a 6-5, 250-pound tight end, (23 touchdown receptions) and star quarterback Wade Bowe (900 yards passing) to graduation, Flame Coach Rick Hayes says the team is better overall.
Five two-way starters return in the line including guards Travis Jennings (6-4, 210) and Eric Buzzone (6-0, 200), and tackles Justin Watson (6-4, 260) and Tony Dembowski (6-4, 185).
Again, there are concerns at quarterback. Two choices: sophomore Nathan Lambie, up from the junior varsity, and Mike Nickerson, who may be converted from wide receiver.
WHITTIER CHRISTIAN--The Heralds lost to graduation one of their best quarterbacks in recent years in Rich Earlywine, but the returning Papazian is stronger and has improved, Coach Phil Bravo says.
USC, UCLA and Nebraska all are interested in him, Bravo said.
"Ron's demonstrated some great strides over the summer," Bravo said. "After accomplishing the things he did as a junior, there's not much more to accomplish as far as recognition goes. I've seen kids in that position relax, but from the day the season ended until now, Ron has been in the weight room and dedicated himself to getting better."
The Heralds have 14 returning starters, with 40 players trying to make the varsity--almost twice as many as most Olympic League teams.
"Our overall team strength is great," Bravo said. "We had one our best off-season lifting programs this year. You give a kid a T-shirt (for lifting certain weights) and they run through brick walls for you."
But aside from the numbers, Bravo said the team's draws strength is its unity. "(We have) more than I've ever seen here at this school," he said.
HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL PREVIEW
1988 Overall, League Records in Parentheses
SCHOOL COMMENT Capistrano Valley Christian Just 3 returning starters, (1-9, 1-4) including Jason Rodarmel Orange Lutheran (7-3, 3-2) Gil Greene might be one of league's best runners Santa Margarita Lots of attention for its first varsity season Southern California Christian League's biggest team, (7-3, 5-0) but who'll be the QB? Whittier Christian (9-3, 4-1) 14 returning starters, including Ron Papazian