Notre Dame High's football team is about to enter territory school officials fought hard to avoid. The Knights will be the only team in the region to compete in Southern Section Division I thanks to the shuffling of parochial leagues by the Catholic Athletic Assn.
It's the first time since 1987 that Notre Dame will be a member of the powerful Del Rey League that includes Loyola, Bishop Amat and St. John Bosco.
"We didn't want it," said former Notre Dame principal David Doyle. "I gave it everything I had. Every appeal was exhausted."
In the 1980s, the Knights struggled as a Division I team. Throughout the 1990s, Notre Dame flourished in Division III, winning the section championship in 1994 and finishing runner-up in '96 and '97.
The pending move to Division I became so sensitive last season that Principal Stephanie Connelly pulled a story scheduled to run in the school newspaper warning of problems ahead.
Coach Kevin Rooney has spent months preparing his players psychologically for the challenge. The Knights won't have All-American tailback Justin Fargas to deal with the likes of Loyola, either.
"I hope the effect it has is positive," Rooney said of the move. "We have some good football players. We're excited about the challenge. It will be fun to compete at that level and kind of test ourselves."
But Notre Dame officials leave no doubt they hope their move to Division I lasts only one season. The CAA has been ordered to come up with new leagues for 1999 and include Mater Dei, Santa Margarita, Servite and Damien in the plans. That creates the opportunity for Notre Dame to push for a new Valley league made up entirely of local Catholic schools.
Doyle, the new principal at rival Crespi, intends to lobby for the Valley league when meetings begin this month.
"That would be the direction we're looking," Doyle said. "I'm sorry we're not all together. We should be all together."
For this season, Crespi, Alemany, St. Francis and St. Paul will compete in the Division III Mission League. Chaminade, Harvard-Westlake, Serra and Bishop Montgomery are in the Division VII San Fernando League.
In Division III, there are only four leagues, so the top four teams in the Pacific, Foothill and Golden leagues will gain automatic playoff berths to the 16-team tournament, with three of the four Mission teams guaranteed spots. There also will be a wild-card entrant.
Crespi and Alemany, two schools that have struggled in Division I, will likely benefit most from the change of leagues.
"I think it's a more competitive league," Crespi Coach Tim Lins said. "There were a couple of games we just didn't know if we could win [in the Del Rey]. Now we have a chance to win them all. Everybody is kind of equal."
Crespi reached the Division I semifinals in 1993, led by New York Giant defensive back Shaun Williams. But the Celts have had only one winning season since. Competing week after week against Division I foes has been difficult because of depth problems. The Encino school's enrollment last year was 495 boys.
Alemany has fared even worse, not making any playoff appearances in the 1990s while in Division I.
"It's a numbers game," Lins said. "It's facing tremendous high-caliber competition every single week. You can't hide."
Under the new league format, each school has to play two nonleague football games against Catholic school opponents drawn at random. Chaminade drew St. John Bosco, which beat the Eagles, 78-0, in a wrestling match two seasons ago.
"I don't think there's any school in the Valley happy with it," Chaminade Coach Ed Croson said of the league configuration. "We're praying it's a one-year deal."
Said Rooney: "I think all the schools in the San Fernando Valley feel strongly about having a league that would unite us. It would be the best for our school to have our kids competing against schools the same size. It creates real good rivalries and bigger crowds."
Rooney insists Notre Dame is in much better shape to play Division I than in the 1980s. Back then, Notre Dame was an all-boys school.
Notre Dame's coed enrollment has reached 1,080, not equal to Loyola's all-boys enrollment of 1,171 or Bishop Amat's coed enrollment of 1,625.
Ready or not, the Knights are plunging ahead.
"Competition brings out the best in everyone, and I'm confident our kids will rise to the occasion and we will have a chance to win every game," Rooney said.
Some facts you need to know about Catholic school releaguing:
* One reason Valley schools have been unable to form their own Catholic league is that Loyola is reluctant to sever its Valley ties. The Cubs, whose campus is located near downtown Los Angeles, will play nine of their 10 regular-season football games in the Valley, including six at Glendale High. One of their top players is linebacker Andrew Altman, who lives in Thousand Oaks.
* Paraclete, the defending Southern Section Division XI champion, moves from the High Desert League to the Alpha League, where the Spirits will try to topple perennial champion L.A. Baptist.
* Notre Dame has won or shared the last five Mission League championships. The Knights' overall record in the 1990s is 74-24-1.
* Notre Dame, Crespi, Chaminade, St. Paul, Alemany, Bishop Montgomery and St. Bernard made up the Mission League in 1991. Alemany, Crespi and St. Paul left for the Del Rey in 1992 and were replaced by St. Francis and Harvard-Westlake. In 1994, Serra replaced Harvard-Westlake in the Mission League. In 1996, Harvard-Westlake returned, replacing St. Bernard.
* The Catholic Athletic Assn. is expected to begin taking recommendations this month for new leagues for 1999. The organization, made up of parochial schools in the Southern Section, has been ordered to find leagues for Mater Dei, Servite, Santa Margarita and Damien.