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Starr-Crossed

TIMES STAFF WRITER

No one needs to pump up running back Donald Carpenter of Sylmar High for the City Section 4-A Division semifinal playoff game tonight at Taft.

But that certainly doesn’t stop his coaches and teammates from spitting fuel on his fire.

“The guys kidded him [Monday night], asking him, ‘How would you like your last game to be on the field you started at?’ ” said Jeff Engilman, Sylmar coach. “And he went nuts. They know exactly how to tick him off.”

The mere mention of Taft has ticked off Carpenter--a former Toreador--since the spring of 1996, when Taft Coach Troy Starr moved him to another position.

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Despite Carpenter’s 1,214 yards and 15 touchdowns in 213 carries his sophomore season as Taft’s No. 1 tailback, Starr made it clear Carpenter would not be the main guy in 1996. Carpenter said it wasn’t the change that set him off, but the way Starr went about it.

"[Starr] was trying to play tricks,” Carpenter said. “He’d put me at defensive end, then move me to another spot. He was playing with my head and I didn’t like it.”

Starr said he and his staff are honest with the players.

“We also tell them flat out, ‘If you don’t like the program, leave,’ ” Starr said. “ ‘It’s a voluntary program.’ ”

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Carpenter, who was dismissed by Starr during spring practice for conduct detrimental to the team, did leave. He headed straight to Sylmar.

But the animosity didn’t end there. Taft officials accused Engilman of recruiting when Carpenter transferred to Sylmar through open enrollment, but Engilman was cleared and Carpenter maintained his eligibility.

To make matters worse for Carpenter, less than a month after the transfer, Taft humiliated Sylmar, 30-6, in the opener last year. Carpenter managed 25 yards in nine carries.

Carpenter said Starr turned his back on him during the postgame handshake. Carpenter hasn’t forgotten.

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“I don’t like Coach Starr,” Carpenter said. “He [showed no respect to] me. . . . What goes around, comes around.”

Although Carpenter said he is happy at Sylmar, it hasn’t been exactly what he expected. Last year he was clearly the featured tailback, getting 146 carries for 1,004 yards and 18 touchdowns.

But during summer workouts, Engilman told Carpenter he would be one of four running backs, but would get significant carries--mainly at fullback. Engilman also told Carpenter he needed him to play more on defense.

Carpenter’s work ethic has impressed Engilman so much that he issued him jersey No. 1, which Engilman rarely gives out--and then only to “special ballplayers.”

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Going into the game tonight, a game he isn’t likely to soon forget, Carpenter has gained 929 yards with 12 touchdowns in 119 carries.

“This is no ordinary football game,” Carpenter said. “This is like I’m trying to hurt somebody.”


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