Despite his normally reserved, humble approach to discussing Hart High football, Mike Herrington cannot conceal his excitement about this year's team.
In nine seasons as coach, he has never picked Hart to win the Foothill League title in a preseason poll.
This year is no different--he's picking Valencia. But there are signs he believes this will be a special season for the Indians.
"We're pleased with what we have," he said.
For Herrington, a master of understatement, that's saying a lot.
In other words, look out for the Indians.
Hart is ranked No. 1 in The Times' regional poll and No. 7 in the Cal-Hi Sports' state poll.
Receiver Jerry Owens, an All-Southern Section Division II selection, could be the best at his position in Southern California.
Kyle Boller, who has yet to start a varsity game, is being hailed as the best quarterback ever at Hart, which has produced all-section quarterbacks for the last 13 seasons.
Some are saying this is Hart's best team ever. The Indians are 94-21 under Herrington and have won 33 consecutive Foothill League games.
Living up to the expectations won't be easy, Herrington said.
"The one thing we're going to have to do is back up all this hype," he said. "We have a tough schedule, so it's not going to be easy."
The Indians should have a better idea of their strength after nonleague games against traditional powers Sylmar on Sept. 24 and Loyola on Oct. 10.
An Oct. 29 televised showdown with Valencia, led by running back Manuel White, on Fox Sports West 2 should decide the Foothill League championship.
But some coaches are already conceding the league title to Hart.
"Who's going to win the league? Hart," Valencia Coach Brian Stiman said. "And at the end of the year, everyone else is going to say, 'Gee, I wish I could have broken that streak.' "
Said Saugus Coach Ron Hilton: "I'd be foolish not to say Hart. But Valencia will be there and Canyon is always scrappy. The league's going to be tough."
Last season was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Hart. Only four seniors started, but the Indians were 11-2 and reached the Division II semifinals, ending the season No. 1 in The Times' regional rankings.
If that was rebuilding, this season will be demolition for opponents.
"We're just worried about putting a good product on the field," Herrington said. "We still have a lot of areas where we're inexperienced."
Observers will be hard-pressed to find those areas.
Seven all-league players return. Three all-section players return. Four starters return on the offensive line.
That's not including Boller, backup last season to David Neill, who earned a scholarship to Nevada.
"Everyone might expect him to come out and be awesome," Herrington said of Boller. "But there might be some growing pains at the beginning."
Billy Brecht might not be the best ballcarrier around, but he flourishes in Hart's run-and-shoot offense. He rushed for 1,115 yards last season, preventing defenses from overplaying the pass.
While Boller and Owens have grabbed most of the media attention, the Hart defense, led by all-section linebacker Scott Hunt, has been widely overlooked.
Hunt, the Indians' leading tackler last season, linebacker Pat Norton and defensive end Brandon Mackabee are tough against the run. With Owens and Shane Lavoie at cornerback, passing against the Indians also will be difficult.
"Everyone is talking about their offense," Burroughs Coach Keith Knoop said. "But I think defense is going to be their show."
Because of realignment, four of the six Foothill League teams are guaranteed Division III playoff spots. A fifth could get in as a wild card.
Valencia, with White and quarterback Brian Hamilton providing a potent combination, is the league's second-best team.
Canyon, with an offensive line led by Scott Arnold (6 feet 4, 265 pounds) and tight end Nick Longshore (6-5, 265), appears improved.
Burroughs, with eight returning starters, will be tough.
Saugus is stronger after a 2-8 finish last season. Tailback Sean Stoddard will power the running game behind a line anchored by tackle Jesse Munoz (6-7, 300).
Coach Wally Luetje returns to Burbank, where he was defensive coordinator from 1990-92. He is the Bulldogs' third coach in three years and considers five victories an optimistic goal.
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AT A GLANCE
* THE PROVEN: Hart WR Jerry Owens caught 63 passes for 1,423 yards and 18 touchdowns last season and is a preseason all-state selection. Canyon TE Nick Longshore (6-5, 265) is among the Cal-Hi Sports' top 100 players in the state. RB Manuel White, a junior at Valencia, is the region's top returning running back after a 2,113-yard sophomore season. Burbank lineman Mike Myers (6-4, 310) is one of the biggest in the league. Saugus RB Sean Stoddard had 956 yards in just six starts last season. Burroughs WR Kyle Cremarosa is within striking distance of Glen Adriatico's school reception record. LB Scott Hunt, an all-section player at Hart, led the team with 108 tackles last season. Valencia QB Brian Hamilton is a double threat who had 696 yards rushing and 1,082 yards passing last season. LB David Johnson, an all-league selection for Canyon, is a three-year starter. Hart RB Billy Brecht had 1,115 rushing yards last season. LB Ray Cassaday, a junior at Valencia, was an all-league selection last season.
* THE PROMISING: Hart QB Kyle Boller has one of the strongest arms in school history. Burroughs RB Randy Beckmann had 502 yards as a sophomore last year. Saugus QB David Parker has shown promise. Lineman Scott Arnold (6-4, 265), a junior at Canyon, is attracting Division I college interest. Saugus lineman Jesse Munoz (6-7, 300) might be the league's best. All-league catcher Mike Shamoon of Burroughs joins the football team and will play fullback. Alan Gutierrez will get most of the carries in Burbank's new single-back offense. LB Patrick Norton, a Hart junior, was selected all-league last season. QB Joe Kroells, a junior at Burroughs, has arm strength similar to former QB J.K. Scott, now at Washington. Hart WR Shane Lavoie, a DB last season, was runner-up in the league 100 meters last spring.
* FAST FACT: Hart has won 33 consecutive league games, second on the all-time Southern Section list. Carpinteria had 60 consecutive league victories from 1947-57 and Lynwood had 33 from 1981-86.
* 1997 STANDINGS: 1. Hart, 5-0 league, 11-2; 2. Valencia, 4-1, 8-3; 3. Canyon, 3-2, 6-5; 4. Burroughs, 2-3, 5-5; 5. Saugus, 1-4, 2-8; 6. Burbank 0-5, 1-9.
Foothill League schedules
Games start at 7:30 p.m. unless noted. Dates and sites subject to change. *League games
Oct. 16--*Canyon, 7
Oct. 23--*Valencia, 7
Oct. 30--*Saugus at Canyon High, 7
Nov. 6--*Hart at Canyon High, 7
Nov. 13--*at Burroughs, 7
Home Site: Burroughs High
Sept. 11--at Evergreen (Seattle, Wash.)
Sept. 18--Notre Dame
Sept. 25--at La Canada
Oct. 2--Glendale, 7
Oct. 9--Crescenta Valley at Glendale High
Oct. 16--*Valencia at Canyon High, 7
Oct. 23--*Hart at Canyons, 7
Oct. 30--*Canyon, 7
Nov. 6--*Saugus, 7
Nov. 13--*Burbank, 7
Home Site: Burroughs High
Sept. 11--at Camarillo, 7
Sept. 18--Highland, 7
Sept. 25--Crescenta Valley, 7
Oct. 2--at Westlake, 7
Oct. 9--Alemany, 7
Oct. 16--*Burbank at Burroughs High, 7
Oct. 23--*Saugus, 7
Oct. 30--*Burbank Burroughs, 7
Nov. 6--*Valencia at Canyons, 7
Nov. 13--*Hart, 7
Home Site: Canyon High
Sept. 11--at Quartz Hill
Sept. 18--Thousand Oaks
Oct. 10--Loyola at Glendale High
Oct. 16--*Saugus at Canyons
Oct. 23--*Burroughs, 7
Oct. 29--*Valencia at Canyons, 7
Nov. 6--*Burbank, 7
Nov. 13--*at Canyon, 7
Home Site: College of the Canyons
Sept. 11--Rio Mesa, 7
Sept. 18--at Simi Valley, 7
Sept. 25--Notre Dame, 7
Oct. 2--at Quartz Hill
Oct. 9--Camarillo, 7
Oct. 16--*Hart at Canyons, 7
Oct. 23--*at Canyon, 7
Oct. 30--*Burbank at Canyon High, 7
Nov. 6--*at Burroughs, 7
Nov. 13--*Valencia at Canyons, 7
Home Site: College of the Canyons
Sept. 11--Highland at Canyon High, 7
Sept. 17--Silverado at Canyons, 7
Sept. 25--at Serra
Oct. 2--Chaminade at Canyon High, 7
Oct. 9--at Quartz Hill
Oct. 16--Burbank Burroughs at Canyon High, 7
Oct. 23--Burbank at Burroughs High, 7
Oct. 29--*Hart at Canyons, 7
Nov. 6--*Canyon at Canyons, 7
Nov. 13--*Saugus at Canyons, 7
Home Site: College of the Canyons/Canyon High