In 1994, only the second season of varsity football at Rancho Cucamonga High, Coach Pete Fotia was working overtime to build up the program when the Cougars' future showed up for his first practice.
Deonce Whitaker, a 5-foot-7 sophomore transfer from Rialto Eisenhower, impressed Fotia right away with his quickness and instincts and was moved right to the top of the depth chart at cornerback.
By the fourth week of the season, it became apparent Whitaker's talent was carrying the football. When Fotia put the ball in Whitaker's hands one day at practice, he broke through the defense and scored on a long run.
"Me and all of the coaches just looked at each other and immediately knew who our new running back was," said Fotia, who previously coached at Montclair. "We started working him in the next week at practice, and, well, the rest is history."
By the end of his sophomore season, Whitaker had rushed for more than 1,000 yards and scored 28 touchdowns in seven games. In a Mt. Baldy League game against Chaffey, he ran for 316 yards and six touchdowns.
The impressive numbers continued to build. When Whitaker ended his high school career in a one-point playoff overtime loss to Chino on Nov. 29, he had scored 104 touchdowns, rushed for 5,677 yards (8.3 per carry), caught 55 passes for 1,239 yards (22.6 per catch) and returned nine kickoffs for touchdowns.
He holds numerous records, including the Southern Section record for most touchdowns in a career, breaking the mark of 99 set by Ted Iacenda of Newhall Hart from 1993 through '95. Steve Wofford of Bakersfield holds the state record of 107 established from 1992 through '94.
Whitaker, who weighs 160 pounds, also holds the section record for most points with 636, breaking Iacenda's total of 604. The state record is 648 by Wofford.
In his final game, Whitaker scored four touchdowns in a 43-42 loss to Chino.
"We really expected to have two more games this season, which would have been nice because Deonce probably would have broken the state record for touchdowns," said Fotia, who is 43-7 over the last four years. "But you know, Deonce never really cared about the records. He never talked about them and was only aware of them when told afterward."
Whitaker is the first to credit the team.
"In my mind, records are recognition for the team," he said. "If I have 104 touchdowns, it means my line is doing its job."
Whitaker showed promise running the ball before enrolling at Rancho Cucamonga, leading the freshman team at Eisenhower to a 10-0 record in 1993. He was expected to be a running back and defensive back the next year on the varsity, which was coming off a 14-0 season and No. 1 ranking after routing Santa Ana Mater Dei in the Southern Section Division I championship.
But apparently not satisfied with the amount of playing time he would be guaranteed, Whitaker transferred to Rancho Cucamonga.
"Kids come and go so much these days," Eisenhower Coach Tom Hoak said. "Deonce was a pretty good player and we knew he had talent. We still hear about him all of the time. To use the cliche, he was really a one-man team."
Whitaker makes up for a lack of size with quickness and speed. He earned a spot on the school's varsity wrestling team last year. And he's even an accomplished pole vaulter on the track team, going 14 feet 6 inches last spring to finish third in his league.
Opposing football coaches won't be sorry to see him graduate.
"Having watched him extensively over the last three years, it's hard to believe that he got better and better," Etiwanda Coach Larry Tisdale said. "I've spent countless hours figuring out how to stop him, and it was just a given he was going to get at least 100 yards every game."
Despite rarely leaving the field, Whitaker never sat out a game because of an injury. His biggest problem was a scalp infection he suffered this season from shaving his head with a razor.
"It made wearing a helmet pretty painful," Fotia said.
College recruiters haven't been fazed by Whitaker's size and have been stopping by the school regularly to watch game film. Whitaker is still waiting for a qualifying score on the Scholastic Assessment Test.
"I'm keeping my fingers crossed because I really want to go to college," he said. "That's what all of this hard work has been about."