While other schools around the state were raising their collective fingers after winning state titles or even their first games, only one school was really No. 1 last year.
The Titans were named by Cal-Hi Sports magazine as its School of the Year to signify the the top athletic program in California.
Poway won seven of the 21 San Diego Section titles during the 1990-91 school year, but a little-known club sport, lacrosse, finally pushed the Titans over the top. The magazine considers a state championship--even by a club team--"almost a prerequisite" for its School of the Year honor.
Yet whoever is bestowing the honors, no one can deny that Poway has enjoyed remarkable success over the past three years. The school has won 23 out of a possible 63 section titles during that period.
"Seven or eight titles is exceptional," said Cal-Hi Sports' Mark Tennis, who has researched schools throughout the state, "and that seems to be the total they hit (each of the last three years)."
What is Poway's formula?
"It's a lot of hard work," lacrosse Coach Morgan Rogers said. "The coaches and the players have been willing to sacrifice and work hard."
And that comes from a coach who doesn't get paid, whose sport is not considered an interscholastic activity and whose club gets no funding from the school. But it might as well have been a credo handed down from his coaching brethren on the district's payroll.
The attitude pervades at Poway.
In the past seven years, Poway has won 38 section championships.
In 1990-91, Poway won section titles in girls' volleyball, boys' and girls' swimming, boys' and girls' basketball, girls' soccer and wrestling. It finished second or reached the finals in boys' and girls' cross-country, boys' soccer, girls' tennis, boys' volleyball and water polo. In all, Poway took first or second on section-wide basis in 13 of its 21 sports.
"There's a lot of fundamental building blocks Poway High has established over the years," said Mark Miller, a coach whose teams have won more than 500 games in four varsity sports. "It didn't just happen last year. It's become the status quo at Poway to have successful, competitive programs across the board."
The program that perhaps set the tone was wrestling.
Wayne Branstetter's team won the state title in 1986 and has finished third the past three years. He became the head coach in 1979, a year after Al Dorris won a section title. Branstetter's teams haven't lost a section title since 1982, although the 1986 team was stripped of the county title for using an illegal wrestler.
Poway has better athletes than the other schools, right?
"Absolutely not," said Branstetter, whose teams are 133-2-1. "There are a lot of factors, but the hub of the wheel is dedicated coaches."
Those coaches began molding athletics into a source of school pride in the 1980s. Gradually, wearing a letterman's jacket was back in vogue. John Graber, whose team won a San Diego Section title in 1990, his first year as boys' coach, remembers a more spiritless time. A Poway student from 1975-78 and the Avocado East tennis champion in 1977, Graber said letterman's attire meant little, if anything.
At that time, tennis players didn't talk to football players, who didn't talk to basketball players, who didn't talk to baseball players.
"I saw a real isolationist attitude throughout the sports program," Miller said. "There wasn't much camaraderie and there wasn't much tolerance and there was quite a bit of name-calling."
Athletic Director Jerry Leininger and Principal Tom Robinson turned that around. They helped revamp the attitude on campus by bringing in coaches who were positive and "were confident in themselves and were able to pass it on to their athletes," Schaitel said.
Looking at some career coaching records, it is apparent the right people were in place. Miller was 266-91 in water polo, 216-51 in golf, 44-24 in softball and 7-2 in girls' swimming. Among others were Lisa Reis (224-40 in girls' volleyball), Evi Yarnell (208-41 in girls' tennis), Bob Champion (311-94-53 in boys' soccer) and Terry Campbell (368-107 in boys' tennis).
Campbell retired, and Miller remains active only in golf, but the others still coach. The girls' volleyball team was ranked 14th in the nation last year. The boys' and girls' swimming teams (a combined 82-18 under Dennis Moore) were 14th in a national power ranking for schools Poway's size and top 40 among all schools. Wrestling was ninth nationally.
Does Poway have the best coaches and does it really make a difference?
"There's a level of efficiency that I think the whole program moves up to," Schaitel said. "As you move up that scale, that becomes the norm. I think that's what's happened here over the years. It's contagious and everyone wants to get to that level."
Miller: "We've been able to produce winning teams without some of the raw talent that other teams have because the coaches have that ability. That is not to say we haven't had our share of talent, but beyond talent you have to have the leadership capabilities to make the most use of that talent. You can have a truckload of talent and get off on the wrong freeway."
Take Neville Saner, for instance.
He inherited a basketball team in 1983-84 that started a freshman, three sophomores and a junior, and he won a section title with them. Then he won the next year. And the next year. But when the talent graduated, he returned to the Sports Arena to win another title in 1989.
"Neville is the perfect example of a coach who came in here with talent and showed the ability to orchestrate the talent," Miller said. "He was a fantastic conductor. He kept it on the right freeway."
He resigned in 1990 and was replaced by Doug Wealch, who won a section title in his first season.
Helping Poway turn over a new attitude was the Varsity Club, which Champion formed in 1980. It played a monumental role in bringing the school together and made pep rallies meaningful.
"There are three things we stress," Champion said. "Setting academic and athletic goals. Leadership by example. And self-evaluation for improvement."
The whole idea was that the first clarinet in the band was just as important as the starting quarterback on the football team.
"The kids weren't as supportive of each other as they could have been," Champion recalled. "Girls' sports were taking a back seat and they weren't properly appreciated as athletes, and the other athletes were thinking their sport was the only one that mattered."
So Champion had a vision, and he changed all that. He was aided by freshman classes in 1982 and 1983 which included some of the school's most gifted athletes: John Colborne, Steve Black, Ann Boyer, Jud Buechler, Andy Byrne, Harold Jones and Dominick Johnson--every one of them a leader.
"Today, we're a group of teams that are part of a family rather than just a bunch of individual families," Champion said.
With that family atmosphere comes some intense peer pressure.
"The downside of having successful programs is in the expectations," Branstetter said. "The third and fourth section titles become a little more taken for granted by the administration and everybody in general. I guess that just goes with the territory.
"But it's a little frustrating to come back from the state meet and you finish third and everybody says, 'What happened?' like you're supposed to win the state meet every year."
And, said another coach who wished anonymity, "I think the administration sometimes takes (winning) for granted and, in some ways, so do the kids. That's great because you establish a positive mind-set, but it's almost like winning a league championship is no big deal, that the section championship is the only thing that counts. And there are some schools in the county that have never won a championship."
To the coaches at Poway High, Twin Peaks is a feeder school, not a television show. On a given afternoon, there might be 600 students participating in after school sports programs at the middle school. It is no coincidence that Poway began succeeding across the board in the mid-1980s.
Larry Higgins is the boys' volleyball coach and has compiled a 31-9 record. His teams still haven't won a section title, but have been to the finals three of the four years the sport has been sanctioned. He is also part of the physical education department at Twin Peaks.
Significantly, Twin Peaks was named Outstanding Secondary Physical Education Program in California in 1984. Currently, the school's athletic intramural program is represented at nine state and four national conferences. There are 10 sports in which the sixth- through eighth-graders can participate: flag football, boys' and girls' volleyball, cross-country, racquetball, boys' and girls' basketball, wrestling, tennis, gymnastics and track and field.
"It's used as a model throughout the United States," Higgins said.
Some other factors:
- The students start young and develop an interest in the "minor sports" before they get to high school. For example, Twin Peaks' cross-country team has won the Mt. San Antonio College Invitational junior high division the past five years.
Schaitel would make a toast to that. So would Moore, who gets help from two outstanding age-group swimming teams in the area, the Blue Fins and Team UPPR. In addition, there are youth soccer programs everywhere, five tennis clubs nearby, golf courses in every community, a wrestling club coached by Branstetter, youth basketball leagues, Pop Warner football, Little League and volleyball club teams.
- Excellent facilities. In a survey conducted by The Times in the spring, Poway was determined to have the third-best facilities in the county. Its pool is within 30 feet of the locker room and there's a deep end to accommodate a diving team. And the all-weather running track provides a superb training tool.
- The coaches emphasize education. It keeps the athletes eligible.
- Competent assistants over the years. There have been some longtime assistants like Al Torretto, who has been in the wrestling program 18 years, Mark Embrey, Mary Cooper, Ed Nelson and Dave Neff. All are head-coach quality.
"They would die to have Mark Embrey in Escondido as a basketball coach," Miller said.
- A large talent pool, 2,633 students, can accommodate the varied sports. How else could lacrosse compete for athletes in the spring against track, baseball, tennis, swimming, volleyball and golf?
- Then there are dedicated athletes. They have to be, because the coaches are so demanding.
"We're able to demand more because that ever-rising expectation lets us get away with it," Schaitel said. "If our athletes are expecting to be the best, we can demand that out of them.
"The athletes here, I bet, have more faith in their coaches than anywhere else. They have faith in workout schemes, they have faith in the coaching philosophy. I've got two kids and a wife at home who have faith in me, but I've got a whole lot of kids here at school with faith in me too."
Schaitel said a part of the attitude starts with the parents. "The work ethic is so important," he said. "If the kid is introduced to the work ethic when he's a freshman on the cross-country team, it's too late."
John Self, the athletic director, is trying to build a consistent winner on the football field as a first-year head coach.
"You look at the other programs and you see dedication and hard work," he said. "They find those kids that want to be part of that program. Branstetter, (water polo Coach Greg) Ormsby, Reis. All these people are real taskmasters and driving forces."
Poway Power Sport: Girls' tennis '90-91 Record: 16-6 League Finish: 2 Section Titles: 3 Comment: Lost section finals to Torrey Pines; finalist eight of past nine years.
Sport: Football '90-91 Record: 4-5-1 League Finish: T6 Section Titles: 0 Comment: Last league title in 1980; lost three games by eight points, four by a combined 16.
Sport: Water polo '90-91 Record: 23-2 League Finish: 1 Section Titles: 0 Comment: Lost section final for third year in a row with first-year coach, Greg Ormsby.
Sport: Boys' cross-country '90-91 Record: 6-1 League Finish: 2 Section Titles: 3 Comment: Second in Division I; first or second in county past five years.
Sport: Girls' cross-country '90-91 Record: 5-2 League Finish: 2 Section Titles: 2 Comment: Second in Division I; first or second in county past four years.
Sport: Girls' volleyball '90-91 Record: 23-6 League Finish: 2 Section Titles: 6 Comment: Division I champions, lost in five game to nation's No.2 team in playoffs.
Sport: Boys' basketball '90-91 Record: 20-6 League Finish: 1 Section Titles: 5 Comment: Division I champions; lost in state quarterfinals.
Sport: Girls' basketball '90-91 Record: 26-2 League Finish: 1 Section Titles: 1 Comment: Division I champions reached semifinals third time in four years; first-round state playoff loss ended 23-game winning streak.
Sport: Boys' soccer '90-91 Record: 16-5-2 League Finish: 2 Section Titles: 2 Comment: Beaten in section finals, their third in six years.
Sport: Girls' soccer '90-91 Record: 18-6-2 League Finish: 2 Section Titles: 2 Comment: Shared second Division I title in three years.
Sport: Wrestling '90-91 Record: 18-2 League Finish: 1 Section Titles: 10 Comment: Section champions, third in state meet for third consecutive year; had 154-match winning streak snapped by an Oklahoma power.
Sport: Baseball '90-91 Record: 20-7 League Finish: 2 Section Titles: 2 Comment: Won last title in 1963; 40-14 past two seasons with two first-round playoff losses.
Sport: Softball '90-91 Record: 10-7 League Finish: 4 Section Titles: 0 Comment: First-round playoff loss.
Sport: Boys' tennis '90-91 Record: 13-7 League Finish: 3 Section Titles: 1 Comment: Defending champions lost in 3-A semifinals.
Sport: Golf '90-91 Record: 17-3 League Finish: 2 Section Titles: 1 Comment: Third in section; top five section finish six of past seven years.
Sport: Boys' swimming '90-91 Record: 8-2 League Finish: 1 Section Titles: 3 Comment: Three-time defending section champions.
Sport: Girls' swimming '90-91 Record: 8-2 League Finish: T1 Section Titles: 4 Comment: Four section titles in past five years.
Sport: Boys' volleyball '90-91 Record: 12-5 League Finish: 2 Section Titles: 0 Comment: Lost in section finals for the third time in four years.
Sport: Gymnastics '90-91 Record: 2-4 League Finish: 5 Section Titles: 2 Comment: Only top two teams from each league advance to section meet.
Sport: Boys' track '90-91 Record: 6-1 League Finish: 2 Section Titles: 1 Comment: Won only title in 1987; sent relay team to state meet.
Sport: Girls' track '90-91 Record: 3-4 League Finish: 4 Section Titles: 0 Comment: Sent relay team to state meet.
Sport: * Lacrosse '90-91 Record: 19-0 League Finish: 1 Section Titles: 4 Comment: Two-time defending state champion has 35 consecutive victories.
NOTE:* Denotes club sport.