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Taking Simi by Swarm

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thousand Oaks can keep its latte-sipping, take-the-kids-to-Club-Disney scene. Ethnic eateries and mega-malls for miles? The Valley can have ‘em.

This family-minded, no-pretensions city prefers football, thank you. So in buzzes the Simi Valley Swarm.

This is a hometown team with big-league aspirations for its inaugural season: The three owners want nothing less than to wipe out the image of minor league football as a haven for aging weekend warriors.

Simi Valley football devotees Scott and Karlisa Aronson and Darren McMahon want to imbue the semipro Pacific Football League with all the clout of minor league baseball. It should be a springboard for the pros, they contend.

And the team’s quarterbacks, wide receivers and defensive ends hope to become this city’s Saturday night steady, with six home games scheduled for the Simi Valley High School stadium.

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“A town like this is so hungry for family entertainment,” said Scott Aronson, a former Pierce College punter who was frustrated playing for lackadaisical semiprofessional teams. He and co-owner McMahon will split the punting duties for the new team.

“The most commonly heard phrases at our front office are ‘Simi Valley needs something like this’ and ‘We have a professional team?’ ” Aronson said. “People know it’s minor league, but it’s still professional.”

After taking on teams from Fresno, Boulder, Colo., the Antelope Valley and San Diego, Aronson hopes to take the fledgling team all the way to Orlando for Minor League Super Bowl XVIII.

The Pacific Football League, which includes 15 teams in Washington, Oregon, California and Arizona, is part of the American Football Assn. The AFA is a federation of about 220 minor league--or semiprofessional--football franchises.

To shake the semipro stereotype, the Swarm’s owners are going all out. The team’s black-and-yellow logo has been emblazoned on T-shirts and business cards. The team has a toll-free phone number and $45 season passes. Home games will feature cheerleaders, pompoms, soda and tri-tip sandwiches. The team will also play six games on the road.

Simi Valley school district Trustee Janice DiFatta already plans to take her two grown children to the Aug. 20 season opener against the Fresno Bandits, the defending minor league champs.

Others will do likewise, she reasons. After all, Los Angeles doesn’t even have a pro football team anymore. And Simi’s soccer moms and baseball dads routinely crowd contests at the community parks and high schools.

“Why should we have to go to L.A. when we can have a hometown team out in our backyard?” she asked. “Why not keep the revenue, the community spirit and the role models right here? Why send it away?”

While happy to serve as role models and community morale boosters, players say that plain old love of football will make or break the venture. Judging from their practices three nights a week, the Swarm offers clean hits and hard tackles.

Practicing plays, throwing passes and running lap after lap, more than 55 burly men are hoping to make the cut. In their 20s and early 30s, the athletes are high school and college stars--mainly from Ventura County and the San Fernando Valley.

The lineup, to be chosen by the coaching staff, will be announced later this summer. The team’s head coach is Aaron B. Spaulding, who has headed squads at Chaminade College Preparatory, Inglewood High School and Compton College.

Quarterback Darren Del’Andrae, who played at Calabasas High and Portland State University, is among the hopefuls.

“I look at this team as probably the best chance for players out of college who missed their window of opportunity,” said the 27-year-old Del’Andrae, a Santa Monica insurance claims adjuster by day. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have aspirations.”

The team’s level of play is close to professional and getting better all the time, Del’Andrae said. It won’t be long before players are scooped up by the Arena Football League, the Canadian Football League or the NFL, players say.

The challenge is convincing the city’s 100,000 residents and other Southern Californians to come to the contests. Through advance ticket sales and giveaways, about a quarter of the 4,000 seats are already accounted for.

But many residents are still asking “The Simi Valley who?”

“I read the local sports pages, but I’ve never heard anything about them,” confessed resident Mike Rodriquez during his morning walk at Rancho Tapo Community Park.

Frankly, he’s not sure minor league football will work in this bedroom community, where people typically come home from work and stay at home unless the kids are involved.

“It used to be that a Dodger game was the most inexpensive thing you could do with your kids,” said Rodriquez, a respiratory therapist. “The nose-bleed seats were cheap, the food was cheap and you had the smell of Dodger dogs, cigars and smoke. But now they charge $3 or $4 a beer.

“If [the Swarm] could make it affordable for families with the admission and food, maybe. But football? I just don’t know.”

DiFatta remains optimistic about the Swarm’s prospects.

“Maybe it’ll take a few games or even a year before everyone knows who they are, what they do and how they play, but it’ll happen,” she said. “It’s easy to get the word out in our city.”

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FYI

The Simi Valley Swarm’s first home game is Aug. 20 against the Fresno Bandits. The team will play six home games in its inaugural season. Tickets are $8 for adults and $4 for senior citizens and children older than 6. For more information, call (805) 578-2323 or (888) GO SWARM.


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