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Rivalries Becoming the Rage : Releaguing Cycle Promises to Trigger New Wave of Emotional Games

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Rich Lawson surveyed the needs of the Chaminade High football program before he assumed head coaching duties four seasons ago, he identified the team’s most crucial shortage. It had nothing to do with the size of the linemen, the speed of the running backs or the quality of the weight room.

This team needed an enemy.

The program needed a traditional rival, even if tradition had not yet created one. While tradition dawdled, Lawson went to work.

His first opponent as head coach was Notre Dame, Lawson’s alma mater and his former employer. The 1973 graduate served as an assistant coach for the Knights from 1978-1980. The 1987 opener might have been just another nonleague game for the Chaminade players, but Lawson carried a virtual religious fervor into the contest at his old field.

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“It was almost like a mystical game for me,” he said. “There were a lot of emotions running through me that night as I walked out on the field.”

Chaminade lost that game, 24-10, and has yet to beat the Knights in seven tries--the Eagles will get another chance Sept. 28 at Notre Dame--but the football program, and the rest of the Chaminade athletic community, gained a rival, perhaps an essential component for a successful program.

“Maybe the enthusiasm I put into that game rubbed off on the kids,” Lawson said. “They started to realize, ‘Hey, this is a pretty big game.’ ”

After two years together in the San Fernando Valley League, Chaminade and Notre Dame have forged a rivalry that ranks as one of the area’s best, if not the youngest. The realignment of schools as part of the two-year releaguing cycle that goes into effect this fall promises to create a number of new and interesting rivalries as the decade of the ‘90s begins.

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However, the most interesting rivalry might be an old one. After a two-year “cooling-off” period, Crespi and Notre Dame will resume one of the area’s most intense rivalries as members of the newly formed Mission League, which includes Chaminade and Alemany, a former member of the defunct Del Rey League. Bishop Montgomery, St. Bernard and St. Paul round out the Division III league.

The realigned Division VII San Fernando Valley League joins previous members Bell-Jeff, Harvard and St. Genevieve with El Segundo and St. Francis.

The Marmonte League has grown to eight teams with the inclusion of Agoura, which has a natural geographical rivalry with Marmonte member Westlake. The City Section has tinkered with its conference alignments, switching Reseda and Canoga Park in all sports and releaguing the Northwest Valley Conference for football.

Even the area’s best rivalry might be affected this decade. Santa Clarita Valley rivals Hart and Canyon traditionally open the season with a nonleague game that attracts one of the area’s largest crowds each year. That game will be moved from opening night if the teams are joined in a new league as planned for the next releaguing cycle in 1992.

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All this squaring off in rivalries will serve as a boon to high school athletics, according to Lawson.

“Everyone knows that there are a thousand things to do on a Friday night in this city,” he said. “But maybe in the ‘90s, kids will see that going to a game and screaming your heart out and rooting for the local team is a great way to spend an evening.”

Of course, that assessment comes from a 35-year-old, self-proclaimed Valley surfer who still takes his wife to the drive-in movies in a convertible and believes that every school should kick off its pep rallies with a rousing version of “Be True to Your School” by The Beach Boys.

The following is a look at other possible big hits for a new decade:

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HOLY WARS

Notre Dame Coach Kevin Rooney has seen the dark side of rivalries. When he left the Bay Area to take the Notre Dame job 11 years ago, he thought he knew about rivalries from his years in the West Coast Athletic League. But he was unprepared for the ferocity surrounding a Crespi-Notre Dame contest.

“We had tough rivalries up north but this was a hate thing,” he said. “Our guys hated their guys and they hated our guys. I was shocked the way people behaved in the stands. Even the parents hated each other. You’d talk to Norte Dame people about Crespi and they’d start foaming at the mouth. And it was the same the other way around. You’d go out on the field and people would be yelling and swearing at you.”

Notre Dame suspended competition with Crespi in 1988 after 15 years, citing intolerable acts of vandalism and “un-Christian behavior” by fans of both teams. The schools were thrust together again when the Catholic Athletic Assn. realigned its schools earlier this year. Officials at Crespi and Notre Dame claim they welcome the return of each other on their schedules, a position heartily endorsed by Rooney and his counterpart, Tim Lins.

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“I think it’s great to have Notre Dame back on the schedule (Nov. 9 at Pierce College),” Lins said. “I know it was a very heated rivalry before, but I think this will be good. Rivalries are exciting if that’s what they are, just two teams with a little extra desire for bragging rights.”

Crespi retains its rivalry with two former Del Rey members, playing a Mission League game against Alemany and a nonleague game against Loyola. The Celts also might find themselves with a new rival this year in Chaminade.

Crespi in Encino and Chaminade in West Hills draw from a similar pool of students, making for a natural geographical rivalry. Lawson admits he helped engineer the rivalry with Notre Dame but said that the matchup with Crespi (Oct. 19 at Chaminade) will need no extra help from him.

“There was a real nice chemistry for our rivalry with Notre Dame,” he said. “The school itself realized the magnitude of playing Notre Dame in all sports. Notre Dame was the class of teams we had played and showing that we could play with them was a great thing for the whole plan of the school.

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“Our kids already are talking about Crespi. They played in the same youth leagues with the Crespi kids and know who the good athletes are.”

Ted Corcoran, a 6-foot-1, 213-pound junior linebacker from Chaminade, already has heard the barbs from friends at Crespi who claim that the Eagles can’t play with the big boys.

“We always caught a lot of flak because they said we were a small school that never played anybody,” he said. “They said we didn’t have the talent to play schools like Crespi. We want to show them it isn’t true.”

Said Lawson: “There’s a mystique about Crespi. If we beat Crespi, it will be one of the biggest wins in school history.”

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CONEJO CLASHES

Westlake probably has the most confusing enrollment boundaries in the area. Since its inception in 1978, Westlake has shared students--and a football stadium--with Thousand Oaks, making for a natural rivalry that only intensified when the Warriors joined Thousand Oaks in the Marmonte League in 1980.

Students who live within the Thousand Oaks city limits on the east side of the 23 Freeway reside only a few miles from Thousand Oaks High but travel a greater distance to attend their school--Westlake. Meanwhile, Westlake Village residents who live across the lake or even across the street from homes in the Westlake enrollment area send their children to Agoura in a separate county and school district.

Westlake Village is split by the Ventura-Los Angeles county line. Ventura County addresses fall in the Conejo Valley Unified School District, and the Las Virgenes Unified School District includes L.A. County residents in Westlake Village.

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“It gets kind of confusing,” said Westlake Coach Jim Benkert, a Westlake Village resident who lives in the Agoura attendance area.

Geography, confused or otherwise, will make Westlake a natural rival of Agoura, which moves up to the Division II league after leaving the Frontier League.

Although Benkert and Agoura Coach Frank Greminger agree that the players and fans of each team eagerly await the game, they differ on their approach to the incipient rivalry.

“It will improve our attendance and give us a bigger following, not just with Westlake but with all the Marmonte teams,” Greminger said. “But personally, I don’t want the rivalry. If you lose the game, kids get down on themselves. I don’t want to think the season hinges on one game.

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“My concern is us going to a new league and handling the pressure of the step up. Maybe once we establish ourselves, we can think about the rivalry with Westlake.”

Benkert already is thinking about the Agoura game, which he calls a welcome addition to the schedule.

“Thousand Oaks is our traditional rival, but we’d like the Agoura game to become just like it,” he said. “There’s a natural competitiveness between the players because they live so close. A rivalry is a neat thing. The draw and publicity are better for those games.”

Appropriately, given the border confusion, Agoura opens the Marmonte season Sept. 27 against Westlake--at Thousand Oaks High.

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CITY SECTION SHUFFLE

Reseda Coach Joel Schaeffer has found another reason to dislike the City Section’s decision to move the Regents from the 3-A Division Valley Pac-8 Conference to the 4-A Northwest Valley Conference.

In football, Reseda joins Kennedy and San Fernando in the North Valley League with Cleveland, which has been moved from the West Valley. Granada Hills and Chatsworth move from the North Valley to the West Valley, joining holdovers El Camino Real and Taft. All conference members play each other once.

“I have no rivalry with anybody,” Schaeffer said about his new league mates. “I’m in another galaxy. You have to go back to the ‘70s and even the ‘60s to find a time when Reseda played Kennedy and Granada Hills.”

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Reseda developed rivalries with Valley Pac-8 members Sylmar and Birmingham during the last decade and has scheduled a nonleague game against Birmingham--small consolation to Schaeffer.

“There needs to be rivalries and interaction between football teams,” he said. “We got the double whammy when we were moved. The next thing they’re going to do is ask us to play with 10 men.”

Reseda’s best chance for a rivalry in the new league is Cleveland. Although the Cavaliers still play rival Taft in the conference, some of the steam left the matchup when the two were moved to different leagues. The same fate greets traditional rivals Granada Hills and San Fernando.

“I’m going to miss that because we used to go down to the wire in league play,” Cleveland Coach Steve Landress said about Taft.

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Landress halfheartedly suggested that Reseda and Cleveland might develop a rivalry based on proximity but lamented the loss of rivalries among City teams in general. He blamed the advent of busing in the late 1970s for the demise of neighborhood identity among athletes and yearned for the pre-busing days when Cleveland competed in the old West Valley League with Canoga Park, Chatsworth, El Camino Real, Reseda and Taft.

“We still identify with that league, but the City has changed since busing,” he said. “The powers that be put games in front of us and we play them. Maybe Reseda and us will become rivals. I don’t know. I just hope whoever our rival is, we win.”

SANTA CLARITA--STATUS QUO

Perhaps the single biggest gathering in the Santa Clarita Valley each year takes place at College of the Canyons in early September for the Hart-Canyon football game, the area’s most intriguing rivalry in the 1980s. It is unlikely that the game will lose its luster in the ‘90s. In fact, the importance of the game might be enhanced.

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Although the duels between quarterbacks Jim Bonds and Ken Sollom, plus Canyon’s 46-game winning streak, made for memorable contests during the past decade, the game was essentially meaningless after Hart left the Golden League for the Foothill League in 1983. An opening loss to a cross-town rival was a crushing way to begin a season, but the outcome had no bearing on the playoffs. Twice in the ‘80s, Hart lost its opener and finished the season as a Southern Section champion. And Canyon’s success has overshadowed the fact that the Cowboys have lost three in a row to Hart.

But it appears likely that Hart and Canyon will be reunited in 1992 in a new league that will include Saugus and a proposed new high school in the Santa Clarita Valley. Foothill area officials would like Royal and Simi Valley to join the Santa Clarita schools, but the two Marmonte schools prefer to stay put.

For the current releaguing cycle, the Foothill area voted for status quo in anticipation of changes in ’92 when two new schools in the Antelope Valley--Littlerock and Highland--start varsity competition.

Those schools likely will replace Canyon and Saugus in the Golden League, prompting the formation of a new league. That idea excites Canyon Coach Harry Welch and Hart Coach Mike Herrington even though their game would be moved from opening night, possibly to the last week of the regular season.

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“It would be nice to get back with Canyon,” Herrington said. “The game gets each school a lot of attention and highlights the players and the success of the programs.”

Welch enjoys opening the season with the Hart-Canyon event, even though this year marks a departure. Canyon opens the season tonight in Hawaii, playing St. Louis of Honolulu at Aloha Stadium.

“The Hart-Canyon football game absolutely dominates talk in sports circles around here for the week or two before the game,” he said. “It’s great to start off the season with the energy generated from that event.”

Canyon’s Hawaii trip may distract from the showdown, according to Herrington, a claim that Welch disputes.

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“Hart-Canyon has been put on the back burner,” Herrington said. “If Canyon loses, it could take some of the luster off the game.”

But if Canyon ends St. Louis’ 54-game winning streak, a Hart victory over the Cowboys would carry more weight.

“That’s why I’m rooting for Canyon,” Herrington said.

Hart rooting for Canyon? The decade begins with a first.

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