Tim DeGroote and George Kase have been friends since 1987, their freshman season on the Hart High football team. But the two did not discover that they had something else in common until this summer.
“I was just over at George’s house and I saw a trout hanging on his living room wall,” DeGroote said. “I didn’t know he liked to fish. We had both done it since we were small.”
Since those early days as small-fry anglers, DeGroote, who plays defensive tackle and center, has grown to 6-foot-3, 255 pounds, and Kase, a defensive end and tight end, is 6-3 and 225. They are the team’s only two-way starters and both are considered NCAA Division I college prospects.
DeGroote was a Times All-Valley selection last season and has attracted the attention of USC, Colorado, Nebraska and the University of Washington.
Kase, a Times second-team selection in ’89, is being recruited by USC, UCLA, Stanford, Colorado State and Washington.
Last summer, DeGroote, Kase and a small group of teammates went fishing at Piru Creek almost daily, even between two-a-day workouts. That helped bring Hart’s two dominant linemen closer together.
The team keeps a running tally on a chalkboard in the locker room for biggest fish and the number caught. DeGroote and Kase admit that they haven’t fared well in the overall standings.
But both players have hooked the big ones when it has counted, helping fourth-seeded Hart (9-3) advance to tonight’s Southern Section Division III semifinal playoff game against top-seeded Esperanza (12-0) at Valencia High in Placentia.
DeGroote had 10 tackles and two sacks in a 13-10 overtime win over Los Alamitos in the first round of the playoffs two weeks ago, then made seven tackles and a sack in a 14-7 win over Century League champion El Modena last week.
“Nobody notices what happens in the trenches but your mom,” Hart Coach Mike Herrington said. "(DeGroote’s) the center of our line and has been the quiet, dominant player.”
Kase has been equally impressive and holds all of Hart’s sack records. Kase, who had five sacks against San Gabriel last season, tied his single-season record of 18 with three against El Modena. He has recorded three sacks in a game three times this season and holds the career mark with 36.
Herrington said this year’s sack total is more impressive because opposing teams often have double- or triple-teamed Kase.
“He’s a marked man,” Herrington said.
That has not stopped him from making 92 tackles. On offense, he has caught 12 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns.
Los Alamitos Coach John Barnes found him hard to forget.
“If you don’t remember who he is, you either have a damn good football team or you have no idea what’s going on out there,” Barnes said. “He just destroyed us. He’s relentless. I wish I could get every kid that plays football for us to play that hard and with his desire.”
El Modena will remember Kase too.
With Hart clinging to a 14-7 lead late in the fourth quarter and El Modena driving deep into Hart territory, Kase dropped tailback Adam Garcia for a three-yard loss on fourth and two to help preserve the win.
“Defensively, he gave us a hell of a time,” El Modena Coach Bill Backstrom said. “When we finally did get something going, he made a real nice play. It wasn’t just the sacks, but the pressure he put on our quarterback. He was in his face or wrapped around his ankles.”
Kase also played tailback against El Modena, filling in for Scott Blanchard, who missed the game because of a sprained neck. Kase carried once for seven yards.
Fishing and football are not the only things Kase and DeGroote have in common. Their families’ sporting backgrounds are also similar.
DeGroote’s brother Doug was a lineman at Hart last season and this season is redshirting at Adams State in Colorado. His father Don, a walk-on assistant at Hart, is in his 22nd year of coaching after stints as head coach at Dana Hills and Canyon highs.
Kase’s grandfather, George Kakasic, played guard for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1930s. But it is former New York Jets standout Joe Klecko who has been Kase’s main source of inspiration.
Kase has played with a newspaper clipping of Klecko inside his helmet for the past three seasons. And yes, it’s the same clipping.
“He’s a head case,” DeGroote said. “That thing is gross. It’s all sweaty and it just sticks to the padding in his helmet. He’s read the book on Joe Klecko about 10 times and carries it around all the time.”
Behind Kase and DeGroote, Hart is starting to earn some newspaper clippings of its own. With a wide-open passing attack, the Indians have reached the semifinals four times in the past seven seasons.
This year the team is led by junior quarterback Ryan Connors, who has passed for 2,508 yards. The team has averaged more than 30 points a game during the regular season.
Meanwhile, the defense allowed only two yards rushing in the second half against El Modena after limiting Los Alamitos to 78 yards rushing and less than 100 yards passing.
“Their offense is good, but people overlook how good their defense is,” Barnes said. “In high school, there are usually a lot of missed tackles. But when they hit you, they bring you down with one hit.”
DeGroote pinpoints a 42-35 loss to Schurr--which cost Hart a chance for its seventh Foothill League title in eight years--as the turning point of the season.
Hart trailed, 21-0, in the first half but rallied to tie the score, 35-35, before losing on a 97-yard touchdown pass in the game’s waning moments.
“That was the big game and we prepared real hard,” DeGroote said. “We blinked and we were already three touchdowns down. We just didn’t perform.”
The Indians defeated San Gabriel, 56-0, and Burroughs, 42-14, to finish the regular season as the league runner-up.
“Nobody really expected us to do anything,” Kase said. “We thought we would be down at the start of the season, but everybody has come together. Last year, we were real talented, but this year we have great team chemistry.”
But the chemistry sometimes resembles an attempt to mix oil and water. While the high-scoring offense is sleek and modern, the defense is more like a throwback to the days of leather helmets. For example, members of the defense have not shaved since the beginning of the playoffs and have pledged to remain bearded until the end of the season.
That’s just one way in which the defensive unit has become a motley crew of characters.
There are also the nicknames. For example, the defensive backfield of Jon Bodemer, Jami Wolocko and Davis Delmatoff operates under the alias of “The Bermuda Triangle.”
But DeGroote and Kase, as the only players who start both ways, are the links between the defense and offense.
“We don’t like to do that because we want our players to be fresh, but they mean so much to our game that we can’t afford to not have them in there because they are so talented,” Herrington said.
Both players are eager to hone their other skills too.
“We haven’t been able to go fishing very much since the season started,” DeGroote said. “But we’re definitely going to start going as soon as the season is over.”
Herrington--and the fish--are hoping DeGroote and Kase have to wait another week.