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Loud and Clear : After Overcoming Injuries and Doubts, Villa Park’s Bell Is Rushing Along

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One newspaper says Villa Park running back Chris Bell has rushed for 1,014 yards. Another paper’s weekly statistics show Bell with 992 yards, or eight yards short of his preseason goal of 1,000.

Bell isn’t sure which total is correct and he doesn’t really care. In his mind, he’s accepting the lower number as the more legitimate one.

“I’ll play off the 992,” Bell said. “That keeps me from getting too high.”

Bell understands that his perspective might be different had he not spent last year being so low he could barely see above ground level.

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“I wondered how good I was last year,” Bell said. “My confidence was way down.”

But it was only down because it had been so high the previous year. As a sophomore, Bell rushed for 20 touchdowns on the junior varsity team. As a junior, he expected to inherit the varsity’s starting tailback spot. But it didn’t quite work that way.

Villa Park’s backfield was crowded last year with plenty of talented people who could run the ball as well as Bell. Even a healthy Bell would have had difficultly breaking into the lineup, but an injured Bell had no chance. So when Bell tore a tendon in his hand in the opener and missed seven games, Villa Park Coach Pat Mahoney moved him to defensive back upon his return.

“By the time he got back, we felt he could help us more on defense,” Mahoney said. “It was probably our mistake. He probably should have gotten some carries. He probably felt he was underappreciated.”

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Mahoney was right. Once the season ended, Bell started looking for places where he’d get an opportunity to play. He looked at several schools, but most seriously at Servite.

“I thought maybe I should try my luck elsewhere,” he said. “I came real close to going to Servite. I got down on myself, but I had my mom and dad in my corner picking me back up.”

Bell said his father was leaning toward Servite after Bell’s grades suffered at Villa Park.

“He was upset about that, but he was also disappointed I didn’t get a shot,” Bell said.

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But during the summer, the crowds in Villa Park’s backfield starting thinning out. Two players graduated, then Leonard Barnes transferred to Santa Ana Valley and Franklin Haynes left school. But going into the season, Mahoney was still telling reporters that the halfback position was a major question.

“I read that,” Bell said. “It seems like I’m always having something to prove.”

Mahoney said he had an ulterior motive.

“Going into the Valencia game I didn’t want people to know we had a tailback,” Mahoney said. “We’ve had such a great tradition of running backs at Villa Park. I wanted people to think the well had finally run dry. We were playing a bit of a sleeper, but we knew what we had.”

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What Mahoney had through nearly the first half of the season was a talented back playing on essentially one leg. Bell suffered a deep bruise on the sole of his right foot in the second game and spent the next three weeks limping through practices and games. He still managed two 100-yard games, but Bell didn’t show his whole package until last Friday night against Canyon, when he ran for 216 yards in 25 carries in the Spartans’ 19-0 victory.

“The last couple weeks, Chris has had the bounce back in his step,” said Mahoney, whose team plays Santa Ana Valley tonight at El Modena High. “Canyon was overrunning the plays and Chris has a great ability to cut back.”

On his 48-yard touchdown run that iced the game, Bell ran right and then cut back left without being touched.

“The ability to cut back is something I’ve always had,” he said. “My dad and I worked on it. It’s a matter of seeing how things develop and doing my homework on an opposing team’s defense. If they try and get there too quick, I take advantage of that.”

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Though Bell is only 5 feet 8, 170 pounds, he is trying to take advantage of his recent success by earning a scholarship to a Division I college. So far, there have been no takers.

“Nobody knew who Chris Bell was coming into the season,” Bell said. “Maybe I can turn a couple heads.”

Bell has already turned one very important head.

“I think Chris came into this season with something to prove and he’s proved it to me,” Mahoney said. “I’m just glad he stayed with us. It would have been a tragedy to lose a guy like that.”

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