Valley Follows Losing Path to the Big Dance

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The road to the City Section 4-A Division title doesn't always lead through the South Bay, but that doesn't mean teams from the San Fernando Valley have had any more success in becoming champion.

The field of contenders has slowly expanded since Carson High or Banning won 11 consecutive titles from 1976-86. But only two Valley teams--Sylmar and Granada Hills--have been able to wrest the title from the Southern Pacific Conference.

Nobody knows this better than Taft Coach Troy Starr.

The Toreadors are the latest Valley school to make a run in the 4-A playoffs. Taft has been undefeated entering the title game at the Coliseum the last two years, only to be turned away each time by San Pedro.

In 1996, Taft lost, 22-20. A photo of the Coliseum scoreboard hung in Taft's locker room all year. It didn't help. San Pedro again beat the Toreadors last season, 24-9.

"The first one was tougher," Starr said. "You couldn't tell me even after the game that we weren't as good as they were."

Starr's disappointment showed. He was so emotionally drained after the 1996 game, he couldn't talk to his team immediately afterward.

Many factors come into play in the development of a championship team, but none are more important than talent and luck.

And the Valley has generally come up short.

"Yes, we have talent," Starr said. "But what people sometimes don't realize in the Valley is the schools over the hill have more. If somebody gets hurt, another guy steps right in. We don't have that."

Since the creation of the 4-A Division in 1975, teams from the Valley have won the major-division title four times. San Fernando won the first in 1975, Granada Hills upset Carson in 1987 and Sylmar is the only Valley team to earn the title this decade, winning in 1992 and 1994.

The Valley has had more success than the rest of the City Section outside of the Southern Pacific Conference. Teams from the Southeastern, Northern and Coastal conferences have yet to make it to a title game.

Some teams have the talent. In 1995, Kennedy cruised through the Northwest Valley Conference, stayed healthy and reached the semifinals with a 12-0 record.

But the Golden Cougars' luck ran out. They faced Dorsey, which simply had more talent. Nine of the Dons' 11 starters on defense are playing Division I football. Kennedy kept up for a half, before losing, 41-19. It was the third semifinal loss in nine years for the Golden Cougars.

"Going into the season, I thought that team, and two others, might have had a chance," Kennedy Coach Bob Francola said. "Right now, I just want a chance to get to the final, feel what that's like."

In the 1996 final, Taft had just taken the lead late in the third quarter when San Pedro tried a long pass. The ball slipped through the hands of defensive back Keith Johnson, right to wide receiver Tim O'Donnell, who scored to put the Pirates up for good.

It's not a stretch to say if Johnson had made the interception, the Toreadors would have won their first City title.

Sylmar has had its share of luck--good and bad. In 1992, the Spartans made their first title-game appearance against Carson, which had been in 10 of the previous 11 finals.

Sylmar appeared overmatched, until the Colts decided to run through Sylmar's warmup formation before the game at El Camino College.

"I couldn't have asked for anything better," Sylmar Coach Jeff Engilman said. "That one act gave them more motivation. They didn't care that they were supposed to be intimidated."

Sylmar won, 17-0.

Two years later, the Spartans had an easy time in a 38-6 victory over Crenshaw, which was 12-1 but making its first 4-A final appearance since 1982.

But in 1993, Sylmar lost to Carson in the semifinals, 22-21, on a last-minute touchdown and two-point conversion. Two years later, the same thing happened in the quarterfinals against Narbonne, 22-21.

"We could have had four championships in a row," Engilman said. "But luck plays into it."

One team that didn't fit the blueprint of a City champion was Granada Hills in 1987. The Highlanders made wholesale changes after losing three early season games, including a blowout to Carson.

"We had an entire defensive line that I don't think played again," co-coach Darryl Stroh said. "We just had to make some changes."

Something clicked. Granada Hills defeated Carson, ranked second in the nation, 27-14, for the 4-A title. The upset broke the string of consecutive titles won by the Colts and Banning and signaled the beginning of the end for the South Bay dynasty.

Now, especially because of open enrollment, there's much more parity.

"There's probably now five or six teams that have a legitimate chance," Engilman said.

But the distribution of talent has been more beneficial to Southern Pacific Conference schools. Dorsey won titles in 1989, 1991 and 1995.

San Pedro has won the last two and every team except Gardena has been to the 4-A playoffs the last two years.

"That's a big advantage for all of us [in the Southern Pacific Conference]," Dorsey Coach Paul Knox said. "It helps that we play each other, play tough games each week. You survive that and stay healthy, you're in good shape. You might get a couple of tough games in the Valley, but not so many in a row."

So who from the Valley has the potential to make a playoff run?

Taft and Sylmar are again conference favorites. The Spartans have the most talent since winning their second 4-A title in 1994, but with 30 players on the roster, there is little depth.

One of Sylmar's top returning players, all-around threat Corey Neal, has missed practice time while recovering from a stress fracture in his leg. Two other players were sidelined through the second week of practice.

"If we have any big injuries, we're done," Engilman said.

Taft's situation is a bit more complex. Loaded with talented backs and receivers, the Toreadors' weak link might be at linebacker, where they must replace Tyler Brennan and David Melo, who made numerous plays last season.

Taft and Sylmar have difficult nonleague schedules.

Sylmar will play Southern Section powers Notre Dame, Hart and Antelope Valley.

But Taft may have a better idea. The Toreadors play Banning, Crenshaw and Dorsey, teams they could face again three months from now in the playoffs.

"[Taft] is going about it the right way," Knox said. "Talent is a big part, but you're going to need to know what you're going up against."

QUICK HITTERS

Some facts you need to know about City Section football:

* Valley schools have won only four large-division titles since the 4-A was created in 1975.

* Taft has entered the championship game undefeated the last two seasons, only to lose to San Pedro each time.

* Sylmar is the only Valley team to claim the 4-A title this decade, winning in 1992 and 1994.

* San Fernando and Granada Hills are the only other Valley teams to win the 4-A title.

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