He Hits the Books, Then Hits the Holes : Division VI: Tustin running back Jason Powell improves grades so he can make his mark on the field.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With a football tucked under his right arm, Jason Powell ran for 20 touchdowns while playing for the freshman team at Tustin High School. Neither he nor the school's coaching staff could have hoped for a better beginning to his prep career.

With school books cradled in that same arm, however, everything seemed to go haywire for Powell. In the classroom, he was off to a bad start if ever there was one.

"He was a ninth-grader on the field and an eighth-grader in the classroom," Tustin Coach Marijon Ancich said.

Without football, Powell probably would have left school.

But he could lead his dual life only for so long. His struggles with his grades began to affect his play on the field during his sophomore season. A move to the varsity, and with it more difficult competition, didn't make matters easier.

On the advice of a friend, Powell decided that a transfer to Foothill, Tustin's rival, was his only way out. Under Southern Section rules he would be eligible only to play for the Knights' junior varsity--a big step backward, he figured--so he stayed put.

Without any other alternative, Powell thought it best to buckle down in his junior year at Tustin. He would get cracking in the classroom and make his mark where he could on the field. It wouldn't be easy, but if he wanted to continue playing at Tustin, he had no choice but to bring up his grades.

Now, all concerned couldn't be happier.

"I'm doing great," Powell said of his school work. "I'm impressed. The coaches are, too.

"I'm learning to like it and actually take pride in it. Now, it's not just football that I can depend on. My freshman and sophomore years, football was all there was."

For a week, at least, football can once again be the focus of Powell's life. He has earned it this time.

With Powell running loose on the field, Tustin (12-1) has advanced to the Division VI championship game, meeting Valencia (13-0) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Orange Coast College. It's the second consecutive title appearance for the Tillers, albeit with a far different cast. Last season, they were beaten, 7-3, by Sunny Hills.

Among the many questions facing Ancich going into this season was who was going to carry the ball. Running backs Ron Goods and Visko Ancich, the coach's son, had graduated, leaving a void in the backfield.

Given his track record, the coaching staff simply couldn't count on Powell. It took a while, but Powell changed their thinking.

He played sparingly in the first few games, but by the time Tustin had put away Capistrano Valley, 25-20, Powell had earned the starting fullback position. He has gotten stronger as the season has progressed.

In a 24-7 victory over Troy in a first-round playoff game, Powell gained a season-high 175 yards in 12 carries, including a 62-yard touchdown run. Going into the title game, he is Tustin's leading rusher with 829 yards in 111 carries, an average of 7.5 yards.

"He's one of the high points of our program," Ancich said. "There's always a hope when you have the opportunity (for a second chance). It's kind of what we're here for (helping youngsters). Now, he's learning what it takes.

"He just didn't focus in the classroom. He wanted to do everything the easy way."

Now, Powell's worst fears are not in the classroom but on the field, where it's often more difficult to measure up.

Take one look at Powell and you'll know why. He is 5 feet 6, not 5-8 as listed in the game program, and weighs 165 pounds, which makes it tough to match blows with 6-3, 220-pound defenders.

At Powell's size, blocking can be a terrifying experience.

"When they're too big, I try to knock them off their legs," he said. "I try to get as low as possible.

"I'm small but I'm wide. I could see if I was a little toothpick, weighing 130 pounds or something. I would like to be 185 by next year. I think I'll have a better year then."

Ancich hopes each year gets better for Powell, who has made a commitment to his school work. After all, they can't get much worse.

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