Making Their Mark : New Coach Puts a Charge in Cypress

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ted Hovorka walked across the football field at Cypress High, joking with his assistant coaches while eating one of the Popsicles he brought to reward his players for a good practice.

Moments later, assistants gone, Hovorka sagged to a bench and ran his fingers through his wavy blond hair in despair.

These are two faces of Hovorka. Most people see the one that reflects a 29-year-old with no head coaching experience who seems confident he can elevate a perennial bottom feeder. Few see the other face--it only emerges when he seems to realize the staggering proportions of his task.

Hovorka is in his first season as Cypress football coach. He is trying to turn around a team that was 4-6 last season and fourth in the Empire League. Hovorka at times has been reckless in pursuit of his goal. Nevertheless, he has gained the ardent support of his players.

More than once, Hovorka has shot himself in the foot trying to ignite the program. Before he had coached a down, he was suspended by the school for two weeks for allowing an ineligible player to practice. He also butted heads with the opposing coach in his first game.

Hovorka, who grew up in Villa Park, was steeped in the best football traditions of Southern California. He was an All-Southern Section linebacker at Servite, where the Friars won a Southern Section title in 1982 with Steve Beuerlein at quarterback. Hovorka also helped the Friars to another section title in 1983.

He assisted Steve Grady at powerhouse Los Angeles Loyola from 1988-90 before returning to Servite, where he assisted Larry Toner the last five years. Hovorka was linebacker coach last season when the Friars advanced to the Southern Section Division V final.

Like a dusty old blanket, the Cypress program desperately needed a good shake. John Selbe was not asked to return as football coach after a 32-55-3 record in eight years.

"I had heard that Cypress was like a sleeping giant, there was a lot of potential there," Hovorka said.

When he arrived for spring practice, however, he found a program with little parental or community support, no tradition and three returning senior starters. Suddenly, he felt a universe away from Servite.

Despite the rough start, his players are impressed. They say he has made football fun again.

"Everybody is more positive this year," said Mike Duarte, a three-year starter at cornerback. "We can actually do something."

"I can remember the exact minute when I met him," Toner said. "It was 1971. I was coaching his big brother [Joe, then on the Servite freshman team]. He was on the sidelines. He was curly haired, a troublemaker, getting in people's way, not obeying his mother and father, all those things [5-year-olds] do."

Hovorka grew up tagging along behind Joe, who is nine years older and played varsity basketball and baseball at Servite before playing basketball at University of the Pacific from 1976-79.

"Then, one day, [Hovorka] showed up as a freshman football player and I hammered him," said Toner, who took over the Servite varsity in 1989.

Hovorka took all the punishment Toner could mete out before distinguishing himself on the varsity under Coach Ron Smeltzer.

Athletics helped Hovorka get in the door at the Air Force Academy, where he played football and baseball his sophomore year. Before Hovorka's junior year, however, a back injury ended his athletic career. Without sports, Hovorka was unhappy with the military lifestyle and he transferred to UCLA.

While at UCLA, Hovorka's nephew told him that Los Angeles Cathedral Chapel elementary school needed someone to run its after-school flag football program. There, Hovorka got the first break of his coaching career--Toby Bailey, who would become a UCLA basketball star, was then in sixth grade and led Hovorka's team to the league title.

After graduating from UCLA in 1989, Hovorka joined Grady's staff at Loyola. There, he learned Grady's golden rule: Get organized.

"He won, but it was so simple," Hovorka said. "Simple but solid."

Hovorka had supported himself by selling lumber--"I hated it," he said--and earned his teaching credential as a way out of sales. He jumped when Toner offered the freshman coaching spot.

Under Toner, Hovorka learned another important aspect of coaching: motivating.

"He picked kids up to do things they had no business doing," he said.

Likewise, the mentor praised his apprentice.

"He didn't do anything crazy like bite the head off a frog or anything like that," Toner said, "but when you want the troops up, Hovorka can get them up."

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Despite these qualities, the transition to head coach was not easy.

Before Selbe left as athletic director, he and Hovorka clashed over running the football program.

"There was kind of a mutual distrust the whole way through," Hovorka said.

But Selbe said he left to spend more time with his two young sons.

"There were some miscommunications with different things in the athletic program," Selbe said. "I didn't have any problems with anybody or anything. That had little or nothing to do with my resignation as athletic director."

Hovorka was disappointed to see the small number of athletes assembled for spring practice, so he handed them all questionnaires and told them to name five other students who might play. About 150 phone calls later, Hovorka had 18 more seniors for the varsity and many more players to fill his freshman and junior varsity ranks.

Hovorka's players seem happy with their new coach.

Said Duarte: "He's a lot more enthusiastic. He's more motivated. He gets people going. I think he brought a lot to us."

Said senior Bobby Brito, a three-year starter at halfback and linebacker: "He's more organized. He's more into the program. He does more for the kids."

Two other players also said they stayed at Cypress instead of transferring simply because of Hovorka.

Despite their enthusiasm, however, Hovorka must check his frustration when they stumble over fundamentals. At Servite, where varsity players are carefully developed, certain skills are automatic. Not so at Cypress.

Bob Salerno, a Cypress volunteer assistant who coached at Anaheim and also assisted at University, Foothill and Servite in a career that spans nearly 30 years, sees the obstacles that Hovorka faces.

"He has to convince the kids that they have to make a commitment," he said. "The kids are there one day and then they aren't there the next. It's things like that that he has to work around."

To that end, Hovorka has instituted social activities to foster team unity. He held a barbecue on the beach and a pizza party. He instituted a senior-freshman big brother program and is trying to organize a tailgate party at a UCLA football game. He also helped the booster club improve the game program.

"We're trying to get the kids together and build a family-type thing," Hovorka said.

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Cypress players were encouraged by their first outing, a 12-7 loss to Estancia.

"Even though we lost, we know we're getting better," Brito said. "When league starts, we'll probably be peaking."

Hovorka expects the Centurions to begin their ascent soon.

"We're not coming in here with a rebuilding attitude. We want to win now," Hovorka said.

Perhaps this will to win is what led Hovorka to allow an ineligible athlete to participate in spring practice. The student was in the English as a Second Language program at a nearby continuation school where Hovorka taught last year. Hovorka, who also speaks Spanish, developed a bond with the student, who said he was interested in playing football when he transferred to Cypress this fall.

It is against Southern Section rules for a player to practice until officially enrolled in a school.

"I didn't know that was wrong and when I found out, they punished me," Hovorka said.

Said Dean Crowley, Southern Section commissioner: "The school administration reported it and dealt with it internally to our satisfaction."

In his first game, however, Hovorka found himself battling again, this time with Estancia Coach John Liebengood. Liebengood felt slighted that Hovorka didn't introduce himself or shake hands after the game.

But Hovorka said he was angry that Liebengood called that day to cancel the junior varsity game because he didn't have enough players.

If Hovorka has made enemies, he also has plenty of supporters.

"I think his strong point is the fact that he really gets along well with kids and is able to convince them that football is hard work but it can be fun, too," Salerno said. "He stepped into a situation that hadn't been very successful, but Rome wasn't built in a day."

There are whispers that if Hovorka is successful at Cypress, he will soon be a candidate for a more prestigious program. But Hovorka shies away from such talk.

"I just want to turn this place around," he said.

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