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HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL PLAYOFFS : CITY SECTION : Bell Tolls for Birmingham Again

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was the kind of postseason underdog teams dream about.

Birmingham High last year was the 16th and final team selected for the City Section 3-A football playoffs.

But the Braves shocked almost everyone by upsetting top-seeded Reseda in the first round and going all the way to the championship game before its glass slippers cracked in a 25-3 loss to Bell.

Birmingham (4-5-1), seeded 14th, gets a rematch against third-seeded Bell (4-5) tonight at 7 in a first-round 3-A playoff game at Bell, but don’t expect a repeat of last year’s unexpected playoff run. Only five players from that Brave team will play tonight.

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A streak similar to Birmingham’s seems unlikely any time, especially in the 4-A Division this year. Sylmar and Kennedy both are undefeated and three other teams have only one loss.

In the 3-A, however, even the top-seeded teams have weaknesses, giving hope to upset-minded opponents.

Sixth-seeded Monroe (7-3) has sophomore Jason Anderson, an explosive runner, and a big-play passing game with quarterback Aaron Arnold and receiver Kenyatta Burris. The Vikings, who forfeited one game, have lost on the field only to North Hollywood and Sylmar, the top-seeded team in the 4-A.

Seventh-seeded El Camino Real (4-5-1) has defensive stopper Jeff Macrea at linebacker and an improving running back, sophomore Quincy Wright.

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With four consecutive victories, ninth-seeded Verdugo Hills (6-4) comes in hot, and if the Dons get by Hamilton (4-6), they are next likely to face top-seeded Eagle Rock, who beat them by only a touchdown last month.

Canoga Park has a story line similar to that of Birmingham.

The Hunters (4-6) are seeded 16th and they have a veteran coach, Rudy Lugo, who hasn’t experienced postseason success in a long time.

Birmingham was 4-5-1 last year before rallying around long-suffering Coach Chick Epstein, who announced before the playoffs that he was retiring. Epstein coached 17 years without winning a championship.

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“We were motivated to win for our coaches,” said Gabriel Villanueva, a defensive end for the Braves this year and last. “We wanted them to go out with a championship. It didn’t matter that we were the 16th seed.”

Even though the Braves last year were 1-5-1 in Northwest Valley Conference play, they were hardly pushovers. They won all of their nonconference games and took conference champion Taft down to the final play before losing.

One of their nonconference victories was a 14-13 decision over Reseda, their first-round opponent. In the playoffs, they widened the margin to 22-6. Then came a 20-12 decision over Monroe. In the semifinals against Wilson, the Braves rebounded from an early deficit for a 27-20 victory, but they lost their star player, Marvin Powell, who suffered a neck injury.

Without Powell, a fullback and linebacker now playing for USC, Birmingham’s offense sputtered against Bell.

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But at the very least Birmingham earned a great deal of respect.

Raymar Adams, who leads Canoga Park with 913 yards and five touchdowns, is hoping to do the same against Eagle Rock (8-2) today.

“When you’re the 16th seed, everybody takes you lightly,” Adams said. “We just want to go out and show people we’re more than a 16th seed.”

And why not? A guy can always dream.

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A look at tonight’s other playoff games. Games start at 7 unless noted:

4-A DIVISION

Jefferson (6-4) at Sylmar (10-0): Jefferson’s strength is its defense, but Sylmar averages 42 points a game.

Expect the Democrats to blitz frequently.

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“We take chances,” Jefferson Coach Henry Johnson said.

Jefferson is led by Najiya Martin, a 1,000-yard rusher, and quarterback Ray Brown, who threw four touchdown passes and rushed for 108 yards last week in a 36-22 victory over Bell.

Top-seeded Sylmar is coming off a 54-12 victory over Monroe. Running backs Durell Price (1,289 yards, 32 touchdowns) and Gerrod Taylor (711 yards) have shown no signs of letting up.

Cleveland (7-3) vs. Dorsey (9-1) at Jackie Robinson Stadium: Raymont Skaggs, Antonio Chatman, Dennis Northcutt and William Prince have all rushed for more than 400 yards for Dorsey.

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Second-seeded Dorsey, champion of the Southern Pacific Conference, was seeded ahead of undefeated Kennedy. The Dons’ only loss this season was to Torrey Pines, one of the top teams in San Diego.

Cleveland counters with the passing and running abilities of quarterback Junior Brignac. His favorite target, Alex Kalinowski, is second in the region with 10 touchdown receptions.

Garfield (6-3) at Kennedy (10-0): Kennedy’s strategy on offense is simple: Give the ball to Antwane Smith. The senior tailback is second among City Section rushers in the region with 1,405 yards and 18 touchdowns despite missing 1 1/2 games with a midseason knee injury.

Calvin Zinck, who has completed 57 of 107 passes for 984 yards, throws just enough to keep defenses honest. He has solid receivers in senior tight end Jason Ascensio and juniors Aaron Lewis and Waking Bailey.

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Kennedy’s defense, which allows 80.9 rushing yards a game, must slow T.J. Sheppard, the Bulldogs’ junior tailback.

Taft (7-2-1) vs. Narbonne (8-2) at Torrance High: Narbonne, second in the rugged Southern Pacific Conference, has enjoyed its best season in more than a decade under veteran Coach Leroy Wilson.

Narbonne has won with a combination of large linemen, fast skill-position players and an unconventional Delaware wing-T offense.

Taft has steadily improved since a season-opening loss to top-seeded Sylmar behind sophomore running back Donald Carpenter, junior quarterback Nick DiPadova and sophomore linebacker Tyler Brennan. Senior linebackers Clay Carter and Antwan Simpson have been the team leaders.

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3-A DIVISION

Canoga Park (4-6) at Eagle Rock (8-2), 2 p.m.: Top-seeded Eagle Rock has shut out its last two opponents by a margin of 93 points. Canoga Park, which averages 17 points, was blanked for the first time last week, by Reseda, 20-0.

Marco Hernandez (850 yards) and John Fontamillas (620) each average more than six yards a carry for Eagle Rock. Ismael Lagunas has 44 catches for 710 yards and five touchdowns, giving him a school-record 101 career receptions.

Canoga Park’s Raymar Adams, with 913 yards in 155 carries, is eighth among City Section rushers in the region. David Montoya completes only 44% of his passes, but he has passed for 813 yards and eight touchdowns.

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Roosevelt (4-5) at Reseda (7-3): Second-seeded Reseda is paced by Armone Lochard, who has rushed for 1,001 yards and 11 touchdowns.

But the Regents’ strength is their defense, which allows an average of only 207 yards and has 18 interceptions. Lochard has five interceptions, Michael Martin and Tony DeLaTorre four each.

Birmingham (4-5-1) at Bell (4-5): Bell is defending 3-A champion, and the Eagles have tailback Vern Benard, who torched the Braves for 179 yards in 17 carries in last year’s title game.

Birmingham Coach Dave Lertzman hopes the Braves will be able to pass successfully with sophomore Scott Doherty.

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Doherty has 10 touchdown passes and leads City Section passers in the region with 1,101 yards. When healthy, sophomore Emmanuel Evans is an effective runner. He has rushed for 811 yards, despite leaving three games with various injuries.

Belmont (4-6) at North Hollywood (5-4-1): Belmont has lost three in a row, allowing more than 30 points in each game. Fourth-seeded North Hollywood has averaged 32 points in winning five of its last six games.

With Dante Clay--the top City rusher in the region with 1,456 yards--running the show, North Hollywood is a title contender.

However, North Hollywood’s defense is suspect. The Huskies, who could not make a 16-0 halftime lead stand up against Sylmar, allow 21 points a game. They may find it difficult to stop Belmont’s Fabain Villa, a senior who has rushed for 921 yards and 14 touchdowns.

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Venice (5-5) at Monroe (7-3): Venice has lost five starters, including tailback Ronnel Jamar, to injuries in the past three weeks.

The Gondoliers are big, but lack speed with the exception Demetrius Posey, a 6-1, 180-pound flanker and free safety. Posey has 42 receptions for 583 yards and three touchdowns.

Jeremy Seltzer has completed 78 of 149 passes for 1,005 yards.

Monroe, which averages 264 yards rushing, counters with an explosive offense led by option quarterback Aaron Arnold, who has thrown for 11 touchdowns. Kenyatta Burris has nine touchdown catches. Jason Anderson averages 10 yards a carry.

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Huntington Park (4-5) vs. El Camino Real (4-5-1) at Canoga Park High: El Camino is drastically improved after a 1-9 season last year, even though the Conquistadores have mostly the same players.

One important addition: Sophomore tailback Quincy Wright gives Coach Bob Ganssle a viable option to complement junior quarterback Shaun Fishman. Wright has gained 450 yards the past three games.

Fishman, who missed three games with a shoulder injury, has completed 42 of 87 passes for 522 yards.

“If they give us the run, we’ll take it, if they give us the pass, we’ll take that too,” Ganssle said. “

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Verdugo Hills (6-4) at Hamilton (4-6), 2 p.m: Verdugo Hills used to rely on the running of Sean Standley, but as defenses keyed on him quarterback Ethan Slimak has emerged.

Since taking over as starter during the conference season, Slimak has completed 40 of 67 passes for 726 yards and seven touchdowns.

After several sub-par games, Standley rebounded with 133 yards last week in a 34-14 victory over Belmont.


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