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The Silly Season : County Prep Football Races Didn’t Turn Out as Predicted

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It has been an unusual football season.

At one time, Marina and Los Alamitos were tied in the Sunset League standings.

Santa Ana Valley won a Century League title, its first title in 17 years.

Cypress qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 1980, only to discover it had an ineligible player and forfeited the victories that pushed it into the playoffs--on the final night of the season.

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Valencia didn’t make the playoffs for the first time since 1980. After winning 81% of its games the past 10 years--the fifth-best total in the Southern and City sections--the Tigers went 3-7; in the previous 10 seasons, they had gone 106-22-3.

For the second consecutive year, Loara reached the playoffs because of another team’s forfeits. And Loara will try to stage its second consecutive first-round upset.

That’s the kind of year it was, the kind that would have put the Psychic Hotline out of business. The regular season was filled with one brow-raising event after another. And now the playoffs begin in what has been a totally unpredictable year.

Laguna Hills sophomore Michael Jones led the sophomore-laden Hawks to another Pacific Coast League title despite projections of a third-place finish. He also established a pace--averaging only 10 games over the next two seasons--to break the all-time career rushing record held by Valencia’s Ray Pallares (5,397 yards in 1983-85). Jones’ astonishing pace is 5,754 yards, excluding any playoff games. Laguna Hills is seeded fourth in the Division VIII playoffs, and is likely to get several playoff games over the next two years--beginning Friday.

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Meanwhile, Reuben Droughns of Anaheim didn’t even finish among the top 10 rushers in the county this season, but ended his career No. 2 on the all-time list with 4,915 yards--despite not being in the playoffs since his sophomore year.

Fullerton went undefeated in the Freeway League.

Newport Harbor, 14-0 last season and the Division V champions, lost five of its first six games on the field, though one was reversed by a forfeit; the Sailors (4-6) didn’t make the playoffs.

Tustin, 1-9 last year, could have won the Golden West League title outright with a victory over Servite--the top-ranked team in Division V--in its final game, but it lost.

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There were plenty of other surprising developments.

The Muddle at the Top

It was an easy call. Los Alamitos was the No. 1 team in Orange County. Case closed. Sealed shut. Put six feet under. It was the dominant team.

Then came Oct. 20, and a 21-17 victory by Esperanza over the Griffins. Playing Los Alamitos always brings out the best in Esperanza, and on this night, it brought out the Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen in the Aztecs’ defense.

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They sacked Los Alamitos quarterback Kevin Feterik 11 times. That was the most astonishing aspect of the game--the way Esperanza manhandled the Griffins, who also happened to be ranked No. 1 in the nation.

Esperanza, which had lost twice already, ascended to No. 2 in Orange County, right behind unbeaten Mater Dei.

Then Mater Dei lost at San Clemente, 23-17.

Esperanza, which had been ranked as low as eighth earlier in the season, was voted No. 1 by area sportswriters.

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“Is there a dominant team in Orange County?” Esperanza Coach Gary Meek asked, then answered his own question: “No.”

And it has been awhile since that was the case.

“On any given week, there’s probably seven or eight teams in the county that could beat each other,” San Clemente Coach Mark McElroy said.

Meek conceded several teams can make valid arguments to being No. 1--especially given the Aztecs’ two losses; Fullerton, Kennedy, Laguna Hills, Los Alamitos, Mater Dei, University and Western have better records.

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Is it more telling to have one bad night over the course of a season, as did Los Alamitos or Mater Dei, or two bad nights like Esperanza--or even San Clemente?

“My opinion is that it’s great for high school football,” Mater Dei Coach Bruce Rollinson said. “It teaches kids that there’s always hope. Don’t believe the newspapers, just go out and play the football game, which is what Esperanza proved.”

Said Los Alamitos Coach John Barnes: “I think the most surprising thing this year is that Mater Dei lost.”

The Undefeated

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There was one team that didn’t lose a regular-season game--Western went 10-0 for the first time since 1972, when the Pioneers’ only loss in a 13-1 season was in the section final.

“I wouldn’t have picked us to go undefeated,” Coach Jim Howell said, “but I knew we would have a good team.”

Western didn’t play any of the county powers, and that led to the Pioneers not being ranked among the county Top 10 until Week 8--right before they were supposed to get their comeuppance from Savanna. The Pioneers won that game, 31-0.

“I thought this group was different because of the senior leadership,” Howell said. “When you have that, it gives you an advantage--it doesn’t mean you’re going to be undefeated, but you feel like it will win some games for you that you might not otherwise be successful in.”

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That leadership came from three-year starters Vince Branstetter (tight end), Josh Burdett (linebacker), David Bell (running back) and Dean Chambers (quarterback).

Chambers has never lost a football game he has started-- and finished-- during his four years at Western. In fact, Western’s record at all levels the past five years, Howell said, was 105-18, excluding ties.

“When you do this well so far [into the season], you hate to see it all ruined by going out of the playoffs at any time, especially early,” Howell said. “I told the kids, there are three seasons. The first two, you can stumble and still reach your goals. Losing now would be a real blow.”

Western plays host to Canyon, the third-place team from the Century League, in a Division V first-round game Friday night.

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Howell said he might not be going much longer. He’s considering retirement after teaching 36 years and coaching 17 at Western. All three levels of the football program went 10-0 this season. Yet, he refuses to use retirement to motivate his team.

“I’m not that kind of guy,” he said. “I’m not that self-centered to think they’re playing for me; they should be playing for themselves. They should want to do the best they can for themselves and their team. . . . But I can’t deny that would be a great way to go out.”

The Strained Journey

The most shocking event of the year was the arrest of Corona del Mar Coach Mark Schuster two games into the season for allegedly molesting his adopted daughter. It was also surprising that the football team didn’t go in the dumper afterward; the Sea Kings could have and no one would have blinked.

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The week of Schuster’s arrest, Corona del Mar lost to Kennedy, 17-10, on an 81-yard run with three minutes left, but that loss seemed little more than a blip in the Sea Kings’ season. They finished 7-3 and second in the Sea View League with a 3-2 record--including a critical 29-22 victory over first-place Irvine in the final week.

“It was pretty hard to stay focused,” right tackle Nick Schaumburg said. “We were wondering, ‘What’s going to happen now?’ ”

Defensive coordinator Dick Freeman stepped in.

“I don’t deserve hardly any credit,” said Freeman, who talks to Schuster weekly when the former coach calls to find out how things are going. “The kids have responded real well. The coaching staff decided the first week it happened that we had to keep it in perspective and get them to focus on the goals they had set as a football team. They wanted to win a championship. They wanted to improve on their junior year.”

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Defensive end Jeff Bogden and quarterback Josh Walz stepped forth.

“After that happened, we needed a few guys to take charge, and they did,” Schaumburg said. “Both of them became more verbal. They intensified their leadership.”

It took two weeks for the team to compose itself, Freeman said, including a 34-14 victory over then-winless Saddleback. It was business as usual with a 12-8 victory over previously unbeaten Santa Ana Valley.

“Rather than saying, ‘This is getting to me, we’re not going to do this, we’re not going to follow you,’ . . . they accepted us as a staff and what we were doing,” Freeman said. “This is a good group and they deserve all the credit. Last year’s group wouldn’t have made it.”

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Maybe the players don’t deserve all the credit.

“I think the coaches should take a lot of the credit,” Schaumburg said. “They’re the ones who do most of the work. They’re watching films, doing all the learning, then teaching us what to do.”

Long Distance Operator

Eric Shine wasn’t even supposed to be that much of the Savanna offense, but he was one of the more stunning performers of the year. He averaged 38.4 yards per carry on his 23 touchdown runs.

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Shine scored 11 touchdowns from beyond 40 yards, and eight from more than 60. Twice he scored from beyond 90.

He had one other touchdown--a 50-yard punt return--and leads the county in touchdowns and scoring.

“With Eric, there’s not a lot of wasted motion,” Savanna Coach Fred Di Palma said. “He makes one cut and gets up the field.”

He only needed a sliver of a hole from linemen Daniel Cornelius, Wes Woolsey, Seelee Sundara, Joe Jiminez, Nick Stocks and Eric Stipes, and he came out of nowhere--even on his own team.

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“As the season progressed, [Shine’s abilities] became obvious, but we didn’t know going in at all,” Di Palma said.

On Even Terms

The South Coast League has been complaining about competing on a level playing field with Mater Dei since the Monarchs left the Angelus League. Well, the rest of the league got a measure of revenge--or credibility--by tying up the Monarchs with a three-way tie for first place.

“Playing in this league, the team goal is to make the playoffs and the other is to beat Mater Dei,” Capistrano Valley Coach Dave Brown said. “It’s a little high-minded thinking, but I think it’s good to set high goals.”

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The Cougars (8-2) beat San Clemente, and San Clemente (8-2) knocked off Mater Dei, 23-17--the Monarchs’ only loss.

“I don’t know that we want to make it any bigger than it really is,” San Clemente Coach Mark McElroy said. “I’m not sure that San Clemente gets too much respect as a football power or competitive football program--we always have the great surfers. Maybe it forces other people to look at us and say, ‘Hey, they play good football down there.’ ”

No one disputes that Mater Dei had an off-night--the Monarchs committed five turnovers and lost by only seven points--but most years, Mater Dei could do that and still win. Not this time, which says more about San Clemente than it does Mater Dei.

“Winning a league title wasn’t even one of our goals,” McElroy said. “Our goal, since last year, was Operation December--we wanted to be playing in December.”

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Said Rollinson: “I think right now there’s parity [in the South Coast League], but it goes in cycles. I don’t know the numbers or statistics, but there were probably a lot of people who were pleased we got beat.”

Probably.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Football Playoffs

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Prep football playoffs begin this week. Here’s a look at what’s ahead:

THE FORMAT

There are 11 divisions, based on school enrollment, which begin play this weekend in a four-round, single-elimination format. Neutral fields are preferred from the second round on, but a host school may use its home facility if it can safely provide for the anticipated crowd.

THE DATES

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Most first-round games will be Friday, but a few will be played Saturday. Quarterfinals will be Nov. 24-25, and semifinals Dec. 1-2. The Division VIII finals are Friday, Dec. 8. Finals in Divisions I, V, VII, IX and X will be Saturday, Dec. 9. The Division I final will be at 7:30 p.m. at Anaheim Stadium.

TOP TEAMS

Orange County will have at least one section champion because all the teams in Division V are from the county, including Western, its lone unbeaten team (10-0). Mater Dei, the defending Division I champion, and Los Alamitos could meet next week in a quarterfinal.

ADMISSION

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Admission to games through the semifinals is $6 for adults, $3 for children younger than 12; tickets to the finals--with the exception of the Division I final at Anaheim Stadium--are $7 for adults and $4 for children. Tickets at Anaheim Stadium range from $3 to $9. No league or individual school passes will be accepted for any playoff game.

Playoff pairings, V4; Division capsules, V5


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