Good thing 1992 wasn’t another drought year.
Throughout the Northwest Valley Conference last season, seedlings were planted in the backfield.
Sometimes they were plowed under by the opposition and sometimes they germinated. As often as not, they blossomed briefly, then withered on the vine.
Perhaps it takes a while for some roots to gain a foothold. But last year’s sprout is 1993’s beanstalk.
“It should be a good crop this year,” Kennedy High Coach Bob Francola said.
Six of the eight teams in the conference have at least one returning ballhandling whiz, and several are expected to be offensive focal points.
Leading the way are Woodland Hills rivals Taft and El Camino Real, claiming a quarterback, tailback and tight end with at least a year of welts under their respective belts.
“The league’s definitely up this year,” Taft Coach Troy Starr said. “There should be some good teams and some really good players.”
The conference theme could be, “They’re baaaack.” Their back. Our back. The quarterback, running back, fullback and wingback are back-breakers, one and all.
Points should be plentiful.
"(Defenses) are gonna have some problems,” San Fernando Coach Sean Blunt said. “It should be real competitive.”
Taft and El Camino Real, each anchored by experienced offensive lines, might have the most productive offenses in the conference. In fact, for the first time in years, San Fernando, Kennedy and Granada Hills face a serious threat from interlopers. Taft and El Camino Real are expected to make a bid for the North Valley League championship, previously the territory of the storied Big Three.
“Like about everybody else, I like Taft’s chances with all their returning players,” Kennedy Coach Bob Francola said. “But I think El Camino Real is really laying in the weeds too.”
Taft, which advanced to the City Section 3-A Division final last year after sharing the West Valley League title with Chatsworth, has four returning All-City players in lineman Dan Lazarovits, tight end Dion Gaston, defensive back DaShon Polk and tailback Jerry Brown.
Because of its record, though, Taft was elevated to the 4-A North Valley League along with the Big Three and El Camino Real. Three schools--Chatsworth, Cleveland and Reseda--remain in the 3-A West Valley League.
For either Taft or El Camino Real to swipe the league championship, a noteworthy streak may need to end. Neither team has beaten Granada Hills since Highlander co-coaches Tom Harp and Darryl Stroh took over eight seasons ago. Last season, El Camino Real was 1-2 against the Big Three while Taft was 0-3, though the combined margin of defeat for the latter was eight points.
To step up to the next plateau, though, Starr concedes that thematic change must take place. In 1992, Gaston (38 catches) was the only player with more than seven receptions.
“We definitely need to be able to throw effectively,” Starr said. “You can beat lots of teams, most teams, by staying on the ground. But to beat the best, you have to be able to throw.”
Brown (5-11, 190 pounds) may be the best back in the conference. As a sophomore, he was selected the 3-A Division player of the year after gaining 1,731 yards in 230 carries (7.5 average).
“He’s bigger, stronger and faster,” Starr said.
But Brown is traveling in fast company in this conference:
* Quarterbacks--Versatility is the key in this group.
Leon Blunt (953 passing, 574 rushing) of San Fernando was selected the conference’s most valuable player in 1992 and is one of the most exciting players in the Southland. El Camino Real senior Ryan Venturine (1,032 passing) is also a baseball player and can throw the long ball. Venturine was an all-conference pick as a junior.
Taft’s triple-threat Mike Ferguson (824 passing, 361 rushing) is also the team’s kicker. Granada Hills junior Jim Landress (570 passing) is mobile in the pocket, and Reseda senior Reggie James (516 passing) also caught nine passes for 113 yards while splitting time between receiver and quarterback.
Venturine, Blunt and Ferguson rank 1-2-3 among returning City quarterbacks in the Valley.
* Running backs--These returning starters could be some finishers.
Three-year starter Chris Shinnick (949 yards, 12 touchdowns), an all-conference selection as a junior, gives El Camino Real solid balance along with Venturine. Kennedy’s Donte Scarbrough (704 yards, eight) is expected to be the next in a long line of 1,000-yard Golden Cougar rushers.
Reseda has two-way standouts DeWayne Johnson (415, five) and Tyrone Francis (356, three), both all-league selections. When teamed with James, the pair could give Reseda the experience it needs to win the West Valley title.
Brown, Shinnick and Scarbrough rank 2-3-4 among returning City running backs in the Valley.
* Receivers--Northwest Valley teams aren’t considered particularly pass-happy, but that could change in light of the depth at the receiving position.
Kennedy’s Shawn Dudra (20 receptions for 384 yards) is 6-feet-4, glue-fingered and a returning all-conference selection. San Fernando’s Brian Jackson (21 for 527 with a conference-high seven touchdowns) is a big-play man who averaged 25 yards a catch.
San Fernando’s Flip Aguilar (seven for 188) is the team’s fastest player. The totals of Granada Hills’ Danny Garcia (11 for 196) will improve as Landress matures.
* Tight ends--Gaston (conference-high 38 catches for 507 yards) was Taft’s obvious go-to target all year, but nobody figured it out until it was too late.
El Camino Real’s Michael Cooper (27 for 451) again should rack up big numbers. Granada Hills workhorse Eric Carpenter (17 for 198) led the team in receptions and yardage.