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COMMENTARY : DeSpain Is Back in the Main

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dwayne DeSpain is back in the spotlight, and he’s one high school football coach who doesn’t mind making headlines.

In his 29th season at Los Altos in Hacienda Heights, DeSpain has a catchy name, 234 victories and seven Southern Section titles. From 1972 through ’82, he had the dominant program in the Southland.

But as the neighborhood changed and the school’s enrollment decreased, the veteran coach found it tougher to win. He never stopped loving the job, though, even if the big crowds have long since disappeared.

Los Altos is revitalized this season, with a heavily recruited quarterback leading it to a 10-1 record and a showdown with Rancho Cucamonga in a Division VI quarterfinal tonight at Chaffey College.

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The Conquerors haven’t won a section title since 1988, and they finished 5-5 last season. Being a contender again has restored fan interest and has DeSpain’s phone ringing off the hook.

“Sure, it has been very tough, going from being on top to being just another school in the middle of the pack,” said DeSpain, who at 57 figures he can coach a few more years. “No matter how things turn out, this team will go down as one of my most special. They’ve done everything I’ve asked and more. It’s also nice to be back in the thick of things.”

A graduate of Lynwood High, DeSpain began teaching and coaching at Los Altos in 1963. Four years later, he was asked to rebuild the football program. He won four games his first three seasons and said he thought the parents were going to hang him from the flagpole outside his office.

His teams began winning in the 1970s. His ’72 team defeated Santa Maria in the Division 3-A championship game, 16-15. The next season, Los Altos moved up to 4-A, the section’s biggest division at the time, and upset Encino Crespi, 21-7, for its second consecutive title.

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DeSpain added championships in ’76 and ’77, making his program the most admired in the Southland. In ’77, three of his former quarterbacks were college starters--Rob Hertel at USC, younger brother Randy Hertel at Rice and Dennis Sproul at Arizona State.

With its enrollment beginning to decline, Los Altos dropped out of the major division but continued winning. The Conquerors finished 14-0 in 1982, defeating Anaheim Esperanza, 31-14, for the Southern Conference title. They won it all again in ’86 and ’88.

Times have been tough since then, however. Several years ago, the school ended its long association with the Sierra League and moved down to the Miramonte League, which competes in Division VI.

Not as many students go out for football. DeSpain used to field five teams, and this year he has three. He has to work harder to raise money because of district budget cuts, and he finds himself playing the role of counselor and parent more often. And summer vacation isn’t what it used to be either.

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But kids are still kids.

“I passed up opportunities to go to other schools and even up to the college ranks,” DeSpain said. “I’ve stayed here because I like working with the young men and the community has been so special. When you find something you like, I think it’s best to stick with it.”

Players such as quarterback Dylan Aquino help keep DeSpain’s interest alive. Aquino, a senior, has thrown for more than 2,000 yards and is a top recruit. An Oregon assistant attended practice Tuesday, and the Los Altos coach made his usual sales pitch.

He seemed to be enjoying the attention.

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