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Togia Displays Appetite for Destruction

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A few words of sincere concern to ballcarriers in the Garden Grove League this football season: Let’s hope Rancho Alamitos linebacker Lia Togia doesn’t mistake you for a hamburger.

“I ate 16 Big Macs in one sitting one time,” said Togia, a 6-foot-1, 230-pound senior. “They were on sale for 99 cents each. I started with five, then went up to 13. I didn’t have much money left, so I stopped.”

That ferocious appetite extends from the meal table to the field, where it transforms into an intense force that has made Togia one of the county’s top linemen.

Now in his third season with the varsity, Togia is one of the key components in Coach Mark Miller’s team that hopes to challenge favorite Garden Grove for the league title. Rancho Alamitos finished tied for second with Pacifica last year, losing two league games by a total of four points.

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Togia, also an all-league offensive guard, combines with all-league tackle James Cabral to give the Vaqueros strength and quickness line on the right side. And this year, Togia moves from outside linebacker to middle linebacker on defense because Miller needs someone with Togia’s speed (4.7 in 40) and experience to handle the position.

“What you have is a 230-pound guy who can run as fast as the tailback,” Miller said. “If you got away from him last year, you ran right into (Chris) Singletary in the middle. This year you’ll find Lia.”

Miller said he would have turned his prized guard into a power back if he had a larger roster, one with more than 32 players.

“If we were at a bigger school with more bodies, he’d be playing fullback,” said Miller, who even designed what he calls the “Buffalo” offense to allow Togia and former Vaquero tackle Leonard Sims a few plays in the backfield. “He’s got the wheels.”

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Twice last season, Togia scampered for long touchdown runs after Miller called for the Buffalo in games Rancho Alamitos had well in hand. The setup, Miller said, was intended to prevent the Vaqueros from running up the score against the opposing teams. But Togia’s running ability ruined those plans.

In a 54-20 victory over Los Amigos, for instance, Togia scored on a 50-yard run off right tackle late in the game. Three weeks later, he showed it was no fluke with a 57-yard touchdown on a similar play in a 32-0 victory against Pomona in the first round of the Southern Section Division VI playoffs.

“The reason we executed it so well was because we were linemen, and we knew exactly where the defensive guys were going to be,” said Togia, who holds the school record with a 365-pound bench press.

Although Togia said he enjoyed those brief excursions in the backfield, he said he is very comfortable--and efficient, he could add--right where he is.

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“I really like both positions, but I prefer playing linebacker because you have to be more physical, more aggressive, and you have to be smarter,” Togia said.

Togia, 17, had to wait an entire year to get any football assignments when he first got to Rancho Alamitos. He sat out his freshman season because his below-C grade average in junior high made him academically ineligible to play sports in high school. That requisite has since been dropped from the California Interscholastic Federation rules, and now only an athlete’s grades while in high school influence his eligibility status. But it effectively kept Togia out of uniform in 1988.

“He’d come out to every practice and just sit there and watch,” said Dean Jacobs, the Vaqueros’ line coach and former freshman coach.

“All I wanted to do in junior high was mess around,” Togia said. “Coach Jacobs kept pushing me to get my grades up.”

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Once he got his schoolwork straightened out, Togia was on his way. Miller penciled him in at offensive guard and defensive tackle on the varsity as a sophomore, and he has been a mainstay with the Vaqueros since.

“He was only about 5-10 and 175 (pounds),” Miller said. “He just got thrown right into the fire.”

The results were surprising, considering that Togia had never played organized football.

Born in Honolulu, Togia grew up in San Diego and wasn’t much interested in the game until the family moved to Stanton in 1985. That’s when his brother, Tom, made the Rancho Alamitos team and eventually became a punishing blocking back for Rancho’s all-time leading rusher, Sean Cheatham. And their late father, Faamata, played football in Samoa, so it followed that Lia might turn into a decent player himself.

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“He’s a Division I (college) player,” Miller said. “There’s no doubt about it.”

For that, Togia needs to maintain his current 3.0 GPA, complete some core courses and pass the SAT. Another option is Golden West College, where he would join his brother. Tom Togia has returned to football as a linebacker after a two-year absence to fulfill a promise made to their father.

“My dad wanted Tom and I to play college football together, that’s why he (Tom) waited this long,” Togia said.

Togia thinks he will play linebacker in college because he’s not big enough to play line. He doesn’t figure he can bulk up enough even with all the home cooking he gets from his mother Mary.

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“I eat the same as other people,” Togia said. “I just eat a lot more of it.”


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