FOOTBALL ‘92 : City vs. Southern Section : Retrogrid : Newly Established City Section-Southern Section Playoff Evokes Could-Have-Been Blockbusters of Yesteryear
Everyone knows that you can’t live in the past, that memories don’t pay the rent. Let bygones be bygones. What’s done is done.
The cliches contain truths, otherwise they wouldn’t be cliches. But they’ve never stopped sports fans from wondering what if, from exchanging windy would’ves and could’ves over a beer or two. No question about it: If Josh Gibson had played in the major leagues, if the Soviets hadn’t boycotted in ’84, if Len Bias had lived. . . .
The speculation game is a typical American pastime--part nostalgia, part imagination, part blather. Now, with the 1992 creation of the CIF/Reebok Bowl, a football playoff between the Los Angeles City Section 4-A champion and the Southern Section Division I champion, Southern Californians have a new excuse to play it.
Since 1970, five Valley football teams won either City 4-A or Southern Section major-division championships. None took part in an intersectional playoff, although rudimentary attempts were made to organize one in 1970 and 1986. Still, you can recreate the past, imagine those classic matchups that never were, and wonder: what if?
1970: GRANADA HILLS (11-1) vs. BISHOP AMAT (13-1)
This would have been a war. An air war, not a get-down-and-dirty-in-the-trenches war, but a war nonetheless. It would have been a showdown between Dana Potter of Granada Hills and Pat Haden of Bishop Amat, the two fastest, most powerful, most accurate guns in the West.
Before the 1970 season, Granada Hills Coach Jack Neumeier installed a newfangled offense, a wide-open precursor of the run-and-shoot. Three or four wideouts. Men in motion all over the place. Improvised patterns. And countless gimmicks: double reverse option passes, entire series run without huddles, shotgun snaps to halfbacks.
“Coach was way ahead of his time,” Potter says. “Nobody could defense us. They’d rush eight men, two men, we didn’t care. We’d just audible and take advantage of whatever they gave us. It was like playing at the beach.”
Granada Hills was expected to finish near the bottom of the Mid-Valley League, but under the new system Potter lit up the beach like Fourth of July fireworks. He completed 245 of 410 passes that season for 3,214 yards and 36 touchdowns, earning co-City player-of-the-year honors.
A high school team with an aerial attack was a rarity in those days of three yards and a cloud of dust. Which is why a 1970 intersectional championship game would have been so unusual. For while Potter was tearing up the City, Haden--later a standout for USC and the Rams, now a television commentator--was demolishing Southern Section passing records: 224 completions, 3,127 yards, 42 touchdowns. The touchdown mark still stands.
Haden shared the Southern Section major-division player-of-the-year award that season with his favorite target, wide receiver J.K. McKay--the son of John McKay, for whom he played at USC and with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. McKay hauled in 97 passes for 1,741 yards and 29 touchdowns that season. Again, all were Southern Section records. The yardage and scoring records remain unbroken.
“There were really only two teams in the area throwing the ball in those days--Bishop Amat and us,” Neumeier says. “That game would have been something else. The best against the best. We wanted to get something together, but it never happened.”
That might have been just as well. The playoff could have been anticlimactic for both teams. Bishop Amat had won its last three playoff games by nerve-racking scores of 15-14, 17-13 and 18-17. It had eked out the Southern Section 4-A Division championship by
beating Lakewood in a coronary-inducing California tiebreaker.
Granada Hills, meanwhile, finished its season with the most emotional game in school history, perhaps Valley history.
The Highlanders’ sole defeat that season had been a 40-15 thrashing at the hands of archrival San Fernando and its quarterback, Anthony Davis. In a rematch charged with racial tensions and class antagonisms, not to mention a City championship on the line, Potter scrambled for four scores to lead the Highlanders to a 38-28 victory in a game that ended in riot.
“It would have been a difficult game for both teams,” Potter says. “We were pretty drained. I don’t know how intense we could have been. . . . Aw, I’m sure once the game started, the intensity would have picked up.”
We’ll never know, of course.
1974: SAN FERNANDO (12-1) vs. SOUTH HILLS (13-1)
Welcome to the battle of the ‘bones that never materialized.
In one corner, San Fernando, led by wishbone quarterback Kenney Moore, the City player of the year. The speedy team.
In the other mythical corner, South Hills, led by wishbone quarterback Brian Bethke, the Southern Section major-division co-player of the year. The well-balanced team.
How fast was San Fernando? Consider that the Tigers went to the state track and field championships with a team consisting of four NFL-bound football players--halfbacks Kevin Williams and Ray Williams, fullback Charles White and wide receiver DeWayne Jett. And won.
“We were probably one of the quickest teams that ever existed,” former Coach Bill Marsh recalls. “Nobody could stop those guys in the backfield. And they all played defense too.”
How good was San Fernando? Consider that Moore, the team MVP, was the only one of five skill-position starters who did not go on to play in the NFL.
“Our attack was just run the ball all day,” says White, who won a Heisman Trophy as a USC tailback. “Me up the middle. Then Kenney on a sweep. Then Kevin on a pitch. Pretty soon, one of us would break loose.”
South Hills was less explosive but no less effective. The Huskies’ defense was dominant, shutting out four opponents, holding four others to seven points or less. Led by Bethke, the offense rolled up 4,270 yards on the ground, a Southern Section record at the time.
“We were big, we were smart, we were strong, we were pretty fast, and we were experienced,” says Jack Nemzek, a South Hills assistant who later became head coach. “We didn’t really have any weak spots.”
Like the 1970 champions, though, these teams would have risked letdowns had they met in a playoff. San Fernando had just struggled through an exhausting City championship game against Palisades, requiring two dazzling Kevin Williams touchdowns and a game-saving goal-line tackle by Ray Williams and White to squeak out a 12-10 victory. And South Hills was coming off the strangest title game in Southern Section history, a 20-8 win over St. John Bosco at the Coliseum that 13,043 attended but nobody saw.
“The fog rolled in right after halftime,” says Steve Arkle, then a South Hills assistant coach, today a South Hills assistant principal. “The fans couldn’t see, the announcers couldn’t see, the coaches couldn’t see, nobody could see. The referees couldn’t tell how many men were on the field. The quarterbacks couldn’t see their own ends. We were sending in subs to find out the down and distance. What a game that was.”
Even better, perhaps, than the game that never was.
1975: SAN FERNANDO (11-2) vs. LOYOLA (13-0)
Oh, one more thing about those San Fernando speed demons. In 1974, they were all juniors.
The ‘bone was back in 1975, back with a vengeance. With Moore, White, Jett and the Williamses returning for their senior seasons, San Fernando was everyone’s preseason choice for City 4-A champion. Despite a stunning 40-0 shellacking by Gardena on opening day and a 28-25 loss to Kennedy, San Fernando lived up to its billing. Moore had another stellar season, White and Kevin Williams each rushed for more than 1,000 yards, and the three backfield mates were named tri-City players of the year.
The Tigers knocked off Banning in the 4-A final that year, 20-8, limiting much-ballyhooed tailback Freeman McNeil to 39 yards.
“By the end of that year, we could have played with anybody,” Marsh says. “We felt like we could have beaten a lot of junior college teams.”
Marsh is probably right. Even so, the Tigers might have had their hands full with Marty Shaughnessy’s Loyola squad. The Cubs had drubbed that same Banning team, 42-12. Led by quarterback Kevin Muno, wide receiver Kazelle Pugh, and running back Gordon Banks, Loyola was rated the top high school team in the nation by the National Sports News Service.
“That was a super team,” says Steve Grady, the Loyola defensive coach then, the Loyola head coach now. “We had a good defense and an explosive offense. Worked real hard too. I would have liked our chances against anyone.”
Then again, Loyola relied rather heavily on good fortune that year. In the Southern Section major-division final, a missed extra point late in the contest preserved a 14-13 win over St. Paul. This was after the Cubs had needed a gimmick play (The Bounce Pass, as it is known in Loyola football yore) with a minute left to squeeze past Anaheim in the semifinals, 21-17.
In any case, the Southland never got to see San Fernando’s ‘bone against Loyola’s veer, Moore against Muno, the jet named Jett against the gazelle named Kazelle.
“We had nothing left to prove in a playoff game,” Grady says. “Let people talk about what would have happened, if that’s what they want to do. The season’s long enough already.”
1986: CARSON (11-1) vs. CRESPI (13-1)
Former Carson Coach Gene Vollnogle is trying to recall. After all, it has been a while.
“Eighty-six?” Vollnogle asks after a long pause. “I don’t remember a damn thing about my ’86 team.”
You won the City championship that year, Vollnogle is reminded.
“We won a lot of City championships,” he retorts.
That’s true. Seven, to be exact. And the 1986 team was typical Vollnogle in several key respects. It split games with archrival Banning--a 37-10 loss during the regular season, a 21-11 upset in the City 4-A final. It had a big, strong, fast, swarming defense. And it had quality running backs: Calvin Holmes, now a defensive back for the Washington Redskins, and Alvin Goree, the 4-A player of the year.
It did not, however, have Russell White. Crespi had Russell White.
The first time the sophomore running back touched the ball that season, he ran 71 yards for a touchdown. The first time he touched the ball in the playoffs, an 85-yard touchdown.
White, now a star at California, finished the season with 2,339 yards and 38 touchdowns. To be sure, his supporting cast was full of Pacific 10 Conference-bound players, including linebacker Sean Howard (UCLA), tight end John Carpenter (Stanford), fullback J.J. Lasley (Stanford) and guard Steve Currier (Arizona State). But it was just that: a supporting cast.
“Russell made my job pretty easy,” says Bill Redell Jr., one of the Crespi’s coach’s sons and the team’s center in ’86. “He made my dad’s job easy too. It was just Russell right, Russell left, Russell up the middle.”
Russell versus the Calvin and Alvin Show. A battle of avengers: two one-loss teams, both having vanquished their sole conquerors in championship games. Attempts were made to organize this bragging-rights playoff, but they never came to fruition.
“I truly believe that by the end of that season, there was no high school football team in the country that could have beaten us,” Redell Sr. says. “But talk’s cheap.”
1987: GRANADA HILLS (9-3) vs. FONTANA (14-0)
If Redell thinks talk is cheap, Fontana Coach Dick Bruich finds it downright offensive.
“Who cares about Granada Hills?” he says. “We didn’t play them. I never saw them play. I never wanted to see them play. This what-if stuff has nothing to do with reality. We had a job to do, and we did it. End of discussion. The Granada Hills coach can tell you what a great team he had. So can I.”
He certainly could, were he so inclined. Led by 19 returning starters, the Steelers finished the season ranked first in the country by ESPN and the Associated Press. Workhorse fullback Derrick Malone ran for 1,906 yards. Halfback Edrian Oliver added 1,103. Quarterback Chris Hancock, now a pitcher in the San Francisco Giant organization, threw for 1,002. “We were a veteran team, extremely hard-working, extremely intelligent, extremely cohesive,” Fontana assistant John MacKinney says.
Throughout the 1987 season, there was rampant speculation about a possible Southern Section/City showdown between undefeated Fontana and undefeated Carson, two of the nation’s top teams. But in a sparsely attended City 4-A final at East Los Angeles College, Granada Hills stunned the Colts, 27-14.
The Highlanders were led by quarterback Jeremy Leach, who broke many of Potter’s school records before going on to New Mexico. They also had Sean Brown, a standout tight end for Colorado, and Jamal Farmer, now a running back at Cal State Northridge. But would Granada Hills have been able to pull off another odds-defying upset against Fontana?
“Why not?” asks Granada Hills Coach Darryl Stroh, an assistant for Neumeier’s 1970 squad. “I don’t think the Carson game was that big a fluke. Our team really improved as the season went along. We would have had a chance against anybody.”
Maybe he’s right. Maybe he’s crazy. Either way, there is no way of knowing. You can’t rewrite history, except in your mind. And there, you can rewrite it however you like.
When you dig up the past, you’re bound to encounter memories:
* Dana Potter and Pat Haden, hours before the 1970 Shrine all-star game, sharing a moment of jittery awe after seeing themselves on the game program cover.
* Brian Bethke giving gifts to the team’s assistants: a wig for the bald one, baby-face shaving cream for the young one, a pillow for the one with hemorrhoids.
* Charles White, Kenney Moore and Kevin Williams posing together for a 1975 preseason magazine cover, sporting hairdos White describes as “10 miles high, 10 miles east and 10 miles west.”
* Alvin Goree returning from the hospital in the summer of 1987 to show his newborn baby to Coach Gene Vollnogle, who has not seen Goree since.
Bethke is now in law school. Potter runs a real estate agency. White is an assistant to the athletic director at USC. But when they look back at their high school days, they all can remember going out winners. If their idle boasts (“We could have beaten anybody. . . . ") had been put to the test in an intersectional championship game, half of these championship teams would have finished their dream seasons on losing notes. “The only time you ever go home happy is when you win it all,” says John MacKinney, whose 14-0 Fontana team went home ecstatic. “Why play another game?”
Clearly, because somebody at Reebok thinks a two-champion showdown would sell tickets. And there probably will be some classic year-end showdowns that people will marvel about for years to come.
But when you settle things once and for all, some delightful uncertainty invariably gets lost.
“Sure, I think Granada Hills had the better team that year,” Potter says. “I’m sure Pat thinks the same thing about Bishop Amat. That’s the fun of it, right?”