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FOOTBALL ’91 : It Was a Devil of a Time : Year-Round Schedule Put a Pitchfork Through City Section’s Hell Week

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Football coaches can be a stodgy lot, a back-slapping group of unbending ol’ boys who as a rule view change as something they would rather have in their pocket, not looming on the horizon.

Sometimes, for instance, it takes years for new terminology to creep into their vocabulary. But once accepted, it tends to stick like tape to an unshaven ankle.

Not too long ago, arthroscopic knee surgery was a novel and puzzling affair to many in the coaching corps. Now, a player undergoing the procedure is referred to by coaches as having been ‘ scoped .

The post-operative process is referred to as rehabbing, a coined word for “rehabilitation” that is not likely to be found in any dictionary.

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Overloading one side of the line of scrimmage with three wide receivers is now called trips , a term that has nothing to do with falling over the 50-yard line or multiple jaunts to Club Med locations. The word pops up repeatedly in the conversation of any self-respecting defensive coordinator.

Coaches, remember, are the same single-minded bunch who steadfastly refer to viewing videotape as watching game film , even though the movie projector is as rare as an eight-track tape player.

Change is again rankling the ranks of City Section coaches. This time a term--more of a tradition, really--is being excised from the coaching vocabulary.

Hell Week is gone in a hand basket, carted off and eliminated as a result of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s adoption of a year-round school calendar.

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“It’s a real change for an old war horse like me,” said Coach Joel Schaeffer, who is entering his 14th season at Reseda High and his 26th as a high school coach. “It’s an abrupt change.”

As expected, City coaches are viewing the change with raised eyebrows. Like changes of the past, though, this one might turn out for the better. For those who have experienced Hell Week, the term conjures up images of pitchforks and pitchouts, exorcisms, X’s and O’s. It traditionally marks the first sanctioned week of practice in pads, wherein players spend hours participating in grueling conditioning and practice drills in morning and afternoon sessions known as “two-a-days.”

In the City, two-a-days have gone that-a-ways. The elimination of Hell Week was prompted by the school district’s conversion to a year-round calendar, which some coaches believe could help City football teams close the gap on their Southern Section neighbors.

Others say it will just close the door.

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Kennedy Coach Bob Francola squinted through the brilliant late-afternoon sunlight as he discussed a group of sophomores who could emerge as breakthrough players when the City football season opens Sept. 13.

The baby-faced group is long on talent, short on experience, and as of the moment, sweating out mid-August temperatures that are hotter than Beelzebub.

Francola’s evaluation is still hanging in the air like a layer of summer smog as linebacker Vincent Carthron trots by in a tank top, helmet, spikes and shorts. Only the tank top and shorts are familiar garb for Carthron, a 6-foot, 230-pound sophomore who Francola says possesses sprinter’s speed.

“He’s had no football experience,” Francola said. “I guess he was always too big to play with kids his age.”

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Another sophomore, 6-foot-4 receiver Shawn Dudra, sprinted by a moment later, executing something that vaguely resembled a pass pattern.

“There’s a kid who’s got big hands and doesn’t know a darn thing,” said Francola, whose team is favored to win the West Valley League title this year. “He doesn’t know any patterns yet and he’s already doing as well as some of the kids who were here for the off-season class.”

While a budget shortfall and move to the year-round academic calendar have created hardship for many--some athletic programs have been pared and coaching stipends trimmed--football emerged relatively unscathed despite the elimination of all junior-varsity programs.

In fact, the revision of the City practice schedule could work to the advantage of most teams, all of which will spend three weeks in pads before the season begins.

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“I think we’re going to find that year-round format is not going to be as bad for football as it is for other sports,” Francola said. “This is easy. Big-time easy.”

Easier for the players too.

Under the previous nine-month calendar, City football teams convened four weeks before the season opener and began with two weeks of conditioning--no contact was allowed--before Hell Week began. Two-a-day practices were punctuated by crash courses in the sport’s crash-and-burn rudiments.

It was an anything but a refreshing refresher course, five hellbent days that left players weak and weary.

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This year, City schools opened Aug. 19, and, because players already were enrolled in classes, Hell Week and its daylong format was eliminated. Moreover, another week was added to the preseason practice schedule, which could help accelerate the development of inexperienced players such as Carthron and Dudra.

“These guys are learning like crazy out here,” Francola said of his untested youngsters. “This time has been invaluable for them.”

In short, marginal players will have more time to absorb specialized instruction. The additional week could help City coaches to turn projects into projectiles.

Arithmetically, it was an even swap in terms of total practices--10 sessions over two weeks instead of 10 over one week--but some feel the switch might pay off nonetheless.

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“Football-wise, you get more done in two weeks than you do in two-a-days,” said first-year Taft Coach Larry Stewart, who should know.

During the early 1980s, Stewart coached at perpetually overcrowded Belmont High, which was on a year-round calendar for four of the five seasons in which he coached. “With two-a-days, you have to come back in the afternoon when it’s hotter than blue blazes,” Stewart said. “Every kid is pretty much mentally and physically out of it.”

What’s more, City players this season should be physically into it. City coaches were allowed to conduct voluntary conditioning sessions from Aug. 12-16, the week before school opened.

“By the end of Hell Week, the coaches and athletes are tired, and that’s counterproductive,” first-year Cleveland Coach Everett Macy said. “In my view, the change will help.”

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At Kennedy and many other City schools, players in helmets and shorts spent Aug. 19-23 working on non-contact drills. Practices in full pads, along with blocking sleds and tackling dummies, began the following week.

Quite a change from the once-rued Hell Week routine.

“I don’t miss it,” Kennedy linebacker Alex Sawatzke said. “It was tough.”

Of course, that was the whole idea.

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Expectations were high, if not stratospheric, entering the season opener. Preseason polls established Granada Hills as the best team in the Valley. A colorful banner hung in the Highlander locker room, asking the question, “Is Granada Hills No. 1?”

Before the 1987 season was over, the Highlanders--who would eventually send five players to NCAA Division I schools--would defeat nationally ranked Carson to win the City 4-A Division title.

Yet in the Highlanders’ opener that year, they fell to Alemany, 17-14. A banner opening, it wasn’t.

A partial explanation for the upset might lie in the scheduling. So-so Alemany, a Southern Section team, was playing its third game of the season, while Granada Hills was playing its first. City coaches long have pointed to the disparities in the start-up times as a major obstacle in beating, or remaining competitive with, their Southern Section counterparts.

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“The feeling . . . has always been, ‘Catch (City teams) early in the season,’ because by the end of the year, they can be tough,” Francola said.

The City’s scheduling change could facilitate a shift in the football tide. Beginning this fall, openers for both City and Southern section schools will be played the same week. This season, both sections will open play next week.

“I hope they try to keep it this way,” Granada Hills co-Coach Tom Harp said of the revised starting date. “The Southern Section has always been so far ahead of us because of the scheduling.”

Indeed, in the Valley area alone over the past 11 seasons, Southern Section schools have made a point of walloping City teams.

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In the 1980s, there was no such thing as Southern hospitality. City teams from the Valley were 11-39 against Southern Section competition, a puny .220 winning percentage.

What’s more, intersectional games have all but disappeared. In 1990, led by Granada Hills’ victories over Lynwood and Compton, area City teams were 2-1 against the Southern Section. This season, only two intersectional games between Valley-area teams are scheduled: Oxnard will meet Westchester on Sept. 13 and St. Genevieve will play Hollywood the following evening.

Lynwood expressed an interest in playing Granada Hills again this season, but uncertainty over the finalization of the City’s year-round school calendar prompted Lynwood to look elsewhere, Harp said. Granada Hills has an open date Sept. 13.

“This will make it easier to schedule games for everybody,” Harp said.

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There are other hurdles to intersectional scheduling, however. As part of L.A. Unified School District’s widespread budget cuts over the summer, junior-varsity football was eliminated at all 49 City high schools. Freshman football was axed years ago.

As a result, that leaves Southern Section schools that agree to play City teams searching for games to fill out the schedules of their underclass programs. Gate receipts also could suffer at intersectional showdowns, because the junior varsity typically plays a few hours before the varsity game.

“They all want to play games at every (program) level,” San Fernando Coach Tom Hernandez said of his Southern Section counterparts. “We just tell ‘em we can’t do it.”

The City’s only non-varsity football alternative is the B team, which groups players by age and size under an exponential system. The City is the only section in the state that uses the B system, which is considered a political sacred cow in light of the area’s burgeoning Latino and Asian populations.

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“We tried to get rid of it years ago, but there was just no way,” said Schaeffer, a former president of the L.A. City Coaches Assn. “People talk of becoming equal with the Southern Section schools, but it won’t happen as long as we have the B teams.”

Schaeffer, who was an assistant at Crespi from 1967-69, said freshman and junior-varsity programs allow Southern Section schools to indoctrinate players in a uniform football scheme.

Schaeffer said that until the programs are comparable, parity between the sections will remain a pipe dream. Scheduling revision notwithstanding, the City will remain in never-never land, he predicted.

The inconsistencies are troublesome but not insurmountable. In 1989, San Fernando played Southern Section powers Fontana and Crespi in nonleague games. Although San Fernando lost twice, the games were competitive and played before large crowds.

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San Fernando also was hammered by Southern Section member St. Paul, 28-0, in 1989. No masochist, Hernandez scaled back the preseason schedule last season and beat the tar out of City teams Fremont and Van Nuys by a combined score of 78-0.

Hernandez said that once he is certain the year-round calendar and football schedule are permanent--barring a major change of philosophy at the L.A. Unified School District, another revision seems unlikely--he again would welcome games against Southern Section opponents.

“As soon as we know the school year is fixed, we’ll look around,” said Hernandez, who long has maintained that his teams will play any team, anytime, anywhere.

The idea is enticing to some.

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“I’d love to schedule some of the City schools from around here,” Chaminade Coach Rich Lawson said. “I’d like to maybe play El Camino (Real) or Chatsworth, communities where we draw most of our students. It could make for an interesting rivalry.”

While the City’s extended, four-week preparation period should smooth over rough edges, many coaches admitted that they bade farewell to Hell Week with mixed feelings.

Over the past few seasons, a typical Hell Week day at Kennedy started with roll call at 7:30 a.m. Assorted drills followed, beginning at 8:30. Chalk talk followed from 11-12.

At noon, players were supplied lunch prepared by parents. At 1 p.m., players received specialized instruction by position. Full-contact drills were run from 3 to 5. The only variance in the routine came late in the week when players were allowed to doze after lunch, disproving the theorem, if you snooze, you lose.

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“We’d find an air-conditioned room somewhere on campus, turn off all the lights and let them take a nap,” Francola said.

“Some of Hell Week was fun,” said Kennedy’s Sawatzke. “Like eating lunch together when the mothers of different players would cook for us. But the rest of it. . . .”

Camaraderie mushroomed among Kennedy’s players, who were not allowed to leave school during the day. “It was a character-builder,” Schaeffer said. “It established an esprit de corps . For teams that don’t cut players, it weeded out the ones who really didn’t want to be there. Surviving it was a feeling of accomplishment that I’ll really miss.”

Conversely, distractions during the first week of school were manifold. Of course, City students not only started football practice Aug. 19, they started attending classes too. “The kids all have five new teachers to contend with, a new schedule, and then they have to come out in the afternoon for football,” Schaeffer said.

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Is the monolithic L.A. Unified School District ready to take the innovative lead in football, albeit indirectly?

How many other major districts nationally have forsaken Hell Week, a veritable institution for decades? Then again, how many want to? “Leave it to L.A. City schools to think of something like this,” Schaeffer said. “Me, I think there will be problems down the road. I went through Hell Week as a player and a coach. I never like to see something like this washed away just like that.”

Come hell or high water, change keeps coming, leaving City coaches to scope out the latest revisions. Whether the City trips, falls and needs major rehabbing after the latest bit of administrative surgery is a matter of speculation.

So, coach, will Hell Week’s elimination be a boon or a bust? Ask again in a year or two.

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After they’ve seen the game film.


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