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How Much Is Too Much? : Coverage: Coaches say athletes not always worthy of laurels.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Darryl Stroh saw the problem, but there was not much he could do.

Each day, the Granada Hills High baseball coach and then assistant football coach observed the strain the media placed on Highlander standout John Elway. From repeated phone calls to his home by reporters to stories praising his athletic prowess, Elway had grown uneasy about his burgeoning fame.

Unprepared for the media blitz, the multitalented adolescent was reluctant to accept the accolades. Elway, who attended Granada Hills from 1977 to ‘79, often apologized to teammates for the attention he received.

“Elway got so much coverage that it was difficult for (him, teammates and coaches) at times,” said Stroh, now co-coach of the football team. “We won the (City Section 4-A Division) championship in baseball during John’s junior and senior years, and the media tried to make him out to be a one-man team.

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“Obviously, what John has gone on to do speaks for itself, but at the time he was a 16-, 17-year-old kid. I can see why (the media) would want to cover things that way, but it can be too much when you’re talking about high school kids.”

If Elway thought the Valley media blitz was rough 15 years ago, he would be mortified today by the increased coverage of high school sports in the area.

For the most part, high school coaches revel in the media attention their athletes receive. However, there are times, some coaches believe, the media go overboard in covering high school athletics.

In Elway’s case, of course, the media was right on target. Elway went on to stardom at Stanford and with the Denver Broncos as their electrifying quarterback.

But many coaches complain the media attempt to make stars of athletes who have not proved themselves. In doing so, coaches contend, the media cause rifts on teams.

Bob Lofrano has seen it before.

Lofrano coached the powerful Chatsworth baseball team from 1979-89. He led the Chancellors to a City 4-A championship in 1983, nine consecutive West Valley League titles and a No. 1 national ranking during the ’88 season. With winning came media attention, from local outlets such as the Daily News and the Valley edition of The Times to national coverage by USA Today and ESPN.

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Lofrano, now baseball coach at Pierce College, argues the media are too quick to deify young athletes.

“High school sports are well covered, but it might be to the point of over-saturation,” Lofrano said. “I’ve read articles about eighth-graders in Little League hitting home runs. Well, my congratulations, but, in reality, it’s Little League.

“Obviously, the kid must have some skill or he wouldn’t have been attaining that glory. But a lot of times it comes easy for certain kids to that point because they have matured faster than other kids and are physically stronger.

“When they get to this level, they might be good for a while when they’re 15 or 16, but then it becomes clear they don’t have the skills to be even great high school players.”

Basketball players Don MacLean and Alex Lopez are examples of athletes who received substantial local media coverage before they were old enough to drive. MacLean, at 6 feet 10, has been a revered sports figure in Simi Valley since he began dominating the city’s youth basketball leagues as a 12-year-old.

MacLean had a spectacular high school career at Simi Valley and was an All-American forward at UCLA. He was a first-round draft choice of the Detroit Pistons and is playing for the Washington Bullets.

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Lopez, from Granada Hills, was 6-9 in junior high--and attracted the attention one would expect. He played on age-group all-star teams throughout the nation and was projected by some to be a major college prospect.

Now 6-10, Lopez, a junior, is the starting center for Campbell Hall. Although he leads the area in blocks, he is yet to develop into an outstanding performer.

Lofrano recalls a player who received considerable coverage while dominating the competition in the Northridge Little League. By the time the player arrived at Chatsworth, he had a reputation, an attitude and the newspaper clippings to back them up.

The player did not make the Chatsworth varsity as a sophomore. He was on the varsity as a junior and played well during the season’s first few games. A feature story about the athlete soon followed.

“After that story he disappeared (on the field) for the next five weeks, and he never did go on to become very good with us,” Lofrano said. “It was the classic case of a kid’s ability catching up with his performance. He just wasn’t as good as the stories made him out to be.”

Antelope Valley football Coach Brent Newcomb tells a similar story of media overkill.

“I had a particular player who did real well in his first game, then he struggled throughout the rest of the season after this big article came out on him,” Newcomb said. “He just wasn’t that good.

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“Sportswriters write these articles on these young kids, these freshmen and sophomores, but they’re not ready. They haven’t really (proven themselves).”

Once a player is singled out by the media, Lofrano said, jealousy can set in--subverting the team concept.

“Sure, there is jealousy, and sometimes rightfully so,” he said. “Remember, you’re dealing with very young athletes. Some kids get coverage who don’t really deserve it, and their teammates are sometimes resentful.

“It’s up to the coach to step in and stop the problems.”

Said San Fernando baseball Coach Steve Marden: “The media almost makes celebrities out of these kids . . . kind of immortalizes them. That can be a good thing, but it can also be a negative when you’re talking about high school-aged people.”

One way coaches head off potential ego problems is by preventing journalists from conducting in-depth interviews and writing stories about players they deem unworthy of coverage. That is unheard of at the college and professional levels.

The main aim of the public-relations machines for college and pro teams is to attract as much media attention as possible. The free publicity helps colleges recruit and puts fans in the pro teams’ stadium seats.

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High schools, ostensibly, are not in the business of recruiting and filling stadiums. Consequently, coaches have no qualms about limiting media access to players.

Such was the case with George Keiaho. The Buena junior tailback was the first freshman in state history to rush for 1,000 or more yards in a season. In three seasons, Keiaho has topped the 4,000-yard mark (4,337). During his high school career, Keiaho has been interviewed many times and has been the subject of numerous stories.

But Keiaho was designated “off-limits” to journalists until the end of his freshman season by Buena Coach Rick Scott. Although Scott knew Keiaho was exceptionally talented, he did not want a freshman to become the focus of media attention early in the season.

“As a football coach, you bask (in) and thrive on the team concept,” Scott said. “You stress it, and when you think things will threaten the team concept, you have to address them the way you see fit.”

Coaches also are loath to facilitate coverage of athletes whom they consider lazy in the classroom or during practice. They try to limit media access to those players or dissuade journalists from writing stories about them. A coach’s feeling about player effort rarely factors into the coverage of college and pro athletes. Instead, coverage is--usually--based on game-day performances alone.

Coaches support their position by saying that media attention for high school athletes is a reward, not something that has come to be expected as it is at other levels. Therefore, they believe, athletes must earn that reward.

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“I’ve refused to let reporters talk to a lot of kids who I don’t feel are doing the job,” Agoura football Coach Frank Greminger said. “If a kid isn’t doing the job, he doesn’t deserve the reward of a nice story.”

Greminger remembers a player who boasted about his performance on Friday nights to teammates each Monday in practice. He proclaimed--ad nauseam--that he was the best player on the team. The coach acknowledged he might have been. Greminger, though, wanted the player to learn humility.

Greminger kept reporters away from the athlete until he toned down his antics. Eventually, Greminger said, the player got the message.

“Sportswriters only see what happens during the games, but there is a whole lot more to it than that,” he said. “You have to try to keep these kids’ feet on the ground, especially the ones who think they are a little better than everyone else.”

In no facet of coverage do media err more than in the publication of predictions, high school coaches say. Coaches argue that the media should not publish predictions, claiming that they label schools as winners or losers.

“The kids take that stuff as gospel and they can be hurt by it,” Reseda football Coach Joel Schaeffer said. “I’ve had kids, faculty, parents come to me upset, saying, ‘Coach, look at what they’ve written, what do you think?’ I just tell everyone to ignore them. These things are written by sportswriters claiming expertise, but I think more than anything else, it’s a competitive thing between the writers. It brings (high schools sports) to a level it shouldn’t be.”

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Said Newcomb: “I don’t want to see that stuff in papers. Leave that negative stuff for the people who want to gamble on the colleges and pros.”

Likewise, many coaches believe the media go out of their way to be negative. They point to game stories that highlight players’ mistakes or questionable coaching decisions.

Sports editors maintain the coverage is fair and balanced.

“Newspapers do not go out of their way to be critical of high school athletes,” said Mark Tomaszewski, Orange County Register sports editor. “But if a player fumbles at the 20-yard line, that’s a fact that will be reported.”

Said Lon Eubanks, The Times’ Valley edition sports editor: “We don’t look at high school athletes the way we would college athletes or pros for obvious reasons. But at the same time, we don’t shy away from negative aspects that crop up occasionally on the high school scene if that’s appropriate.”

Still, high school coaches believe the media make no distinctions among the levels. “It’s unfair to hold these kids up to the same standard of professionals and college athletes,” Thousand Oaks football Coach Bob Richards said. “These are boys who are just competing for fun.

“Ninety-nine percent of them will probably conclude their athletic career in high school. Why highlight the mistakes they make?”

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Said Canyon football Coach Harry Welch: “My primary job is to be an English teacher and these kids are full-time kids. Certain newspapers paint kids in a bad light, and that’s just wrong. High school sports coverage needs to be kept in proper perspective.”

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