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He’s the Pacemaker at Hart

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seven years ago, Dean Herrington joined the football coaching staff at Hart High and added his touch to the offense.

Adding a run-and-shoot offense and grooming players nearly year-round, Herrington has helped the Indians win five consecutive Foothill League championships.

More remarkable, Hart under Herrington has maintained an unprecedented 10-year streak in which the team’s quarterback has earned All-Southern Section honors.

Joining a staff with his brothers, Mike, 37, the head coach, and Rick, 35, the defensive coordinator, Dean, 31, added his gift for reading defenses, moving the ball and lighting up the scoreboard.

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He also brought a fierce will to succeed.

“He doesn’t accept anything less than 100%,” quarterback Steve McKeon said. “I can vouch for that.”

McKeon, a feisty 5-foot-7 senior, has passed for 2,633 yards and 28 touchdowns this season. He probably will be named All-Southern Section for the second year in a row.

But Hart has not won a section championship with Harrington’s high-octane, run-and-shoot offense.

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The Indians lost to Antelope Valley, 36-15, in the 1994 Division II championship game. Over the years, Herrington’s offense has brought playoff thrills--like a 38-35 loss to heavy favorite Esperanza in 1990--and bitter disappointment--like a 13-7 loss to Crescenta Valley in 1992.

Hart continues its chase for a section title in a second-round game tonight at 7:30 against Dominguez in Compton.

But the team’s run of top quarterbacks remains intact.

It started in 1985, pre-Herrington, with Jim Bonds’ junior year, and continued in 1987 with Darren Renfro and Rob Westervelt in ’88.

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In 1989, Herrington’s first season, Westervelt passed for more than 2,000 yards. Then came Ryan Connors, who threw for 6,959 yards and 65 touchdowns in two seasons. Connors’ 4,144 yards in ’91 broke a section record.

Davis Delmatoff followed in 1992 with 3,196 yards and 36 scores and Mike Kocicka in ’93 had 2,953 yards and 32 touchdowns.

McKeon has 5,557 yards and 58 touchdown passes in two seasons despite the presence of running back Ted Iacenda, a third-year starter who has 88 touchdowns and was section player of the year last season.

Herrington would really enjoy all this success if he wasn’t busy grooming his next starter, scouting his next opponent or chasing that first section championship.

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“It’s kind of rewarding . . . a little bit,” he said. “But it’s still a matter of wins and losses. I’m a real bad loser. I’ll admit it. I learned a long time ago, it doesn’t matter how many yards you throw for.”

A long time ago, in this case, was 1980, when Dean Herrington was the Hart quarterback--the last signal-caller not to lead the Indians into the playoffs.

Herrington believes he knows the reason Hart didn’t make it to the postseason with him at the helm.

“Because I stunk,” he said.

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Actually, Herrington threw for 1,232 yards that season and inspired Coach Carl Sweet to switch from an option attack to a pro set.

The next season Herrington passed for 2,064 yards and 16 touchdowns and became the charter member of Hart’s all-section quarterback club.

Herrington also remembers most of his 14 interceptions that season, including two that were heisted by future NFL players Bruce Hill (Tampa Bay Buccaneer receiver) and Erik Kramer (Chicago Bear quarterback).

“If I were coaching then,” Herrington said, “I would have looked for someone else to play quarterback. I wasn’t real mobile. I didn’t have a great arm.”

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But Sweet, now athletic director at El Dorado High in Placentia, was so content with his 5-10 signal-caller that he considered passing on every play in one game.

“He was an innovator,” Sweet said. “He could do things on the run. We’d work on a concept and go through it and he would take it to another level.”

After high school, Herrington tried to hook on at three junior colleges--Pasadena, Pierce and Fullerton--but he was either too low on the depth chart or the system was wrong for his talents.

“I should have stayed at Pierce, seeing the way Kramer developed,” he said.

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In 1985, Herrington, 21, discovered the run-and-shoot.

The Denver Gold of the United States Football league was using the offense, still in its infancy. The Gold held preseason camp at Cal State Northridge, where Herrington was enrolled.

Because he knew a Northridge assistant whose wife was a teacher at Hart, Herrington was able to watch and videotape practices. He even studied the Gold’s playbook.

“It was tough, because a lot of run-and-shoot guys were real secretive then,” he said.

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Hart has more than 50 pass plays, compared to 12 running plays.

“People bad-mouth it a lot,” he said of his offense. “But for the high-school level I think it’s, bar none, the best offense you could run. We’ve run it with average quarterbacks. No one’s going to say McKeon, or even Connors, was a prototype quarterback.”

Each of Herrington’s proteges have reflected two of his most-noteworthy characteristics: intelligence and toughness.

But that’s where the similarities end. Herrington said each quarterback was unique.

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On Westervelt: “He was very intense and one of the strongest players on the team. He was like a defensive end playing quarterback. Sometimes he was too aggressive.”

On Connors: “He was one of the most-accurate quarterbacks I’ve ever seen. You’d tell him to hit a butterfly with the ball and he’d say, ‘Which wing?’ ”

On Delmatoff: “He got the most out of his ability of anyone I’ve coached. The heartbreaking thing about that Crescenta Valley game is that he didn’t deserve to have that happen to him (Hart committed six turnovers, including three interceptions in the 13-7 loss in the first round of the 1992 playoffs).

“He had 36 touchdowns and only eight interceptions going into that game. It was one of those weird nights. For 12 games, he was probably the best guy I’ve ever coached.”

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On Kocicka: “When he came [from Crescenta Valley], I heard a lot of horror stories about him. The coach over there told me, ‘Don’t bother with him.’ I wasn’t going to. We were rough with him. But he proved that you could teach a kid to be tough.

“By the end of the year, he was a top quarterback. Physically, boy was he gifted!”

On McKeon: “He’s not really a quarterback. He’s an athlete back there and he’s so much fun to coach. He’s a competitor and his No. 1 asset is his toughness. Oh, my Lord, he took a beating the [game at Honolulu St. Louis to open the season]. But toughness is the No. 1 thing I want in a quarterback.”

Having started for two seasons on the junior varsity, McKeon said he was already an accomplished passer. But a quarterback with a good arm is common; a quarterback who can recognize and exploit coverages is rare.

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Except at Hart.

On each play, McKeon and his receivers read and react.

"[Herrington] teaches us all day long how to make those reads,” McKeon said. “I see teams we play. The receivers run generic routes. They don’t make any decisions.

“I can come up to the line and recognize one situation, and then I will see another situation developing as I’m dropping back. And I’m able to capitalize on it. And if I call an audible, my four receivers know what they’re doing and they make decisions.”

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Herrington keeps his eyes on the young quarterbacks on campus. They include sophomore Dave Veil and freshman Kyle Boller.

But McKeon expects to pass the torch to his backup, junior Travis Carroll. Carroll said the tradition at Hart means more pressure for each incoming quarterback. But he feels comfortable, knowing he is being groomed by Herrington.

“He always makes sure I stay out of trouble,” Carroll said. “He doesn’t want me getting hurt or having any bad reputation. I’ve got to keep my grades up.

“You gotta be smart to play for him.”

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