The praise began toward the end of the 1997 football season and has continued.
Keep on eye on La Habra running back Josh Herrera--if you can. Great speed, fluid running style. Will fake you into next week. At 6-1, 175, strong and durable. A potential star.
Fullerton Coach Julian Smilowitz echoed the sentiments of several opposing Freeway coaches when asked about Herrera. "He has the chance to be the next great back in this league."
Heady stuff for a kid who doesn't turn 16 until Sept. 19. But Herrera, a junior, said he's not interested in attention. He wants to be part of a winning season. The Highlanders slipped to 2-7-1 last year after going 7-3 the year before.
"I don't think about [the compliments]," Herrera said. "I'm just going to try to let things happen."
La Habra needs good things to happen. There have been enough bad. The Highlanders were winless in their last seven games (six losses and a tie with Fullerton), scoring more than 14 points only once during that stretch. At the end of the season, Coach Rick Milhizer resigned.
Herrera said Milhizer should not have taken the fall for La Habra's poor showing.
"We had a lack of experience," Herrera said. "We had six seniors and only three or four of them started. There was nothing wrong about coaching. It was a rebuilding year. We understood that, even though it was frustrating to practice so hard and not see things come off in the games."
Herrera did what he could, gaining 530 yards rushing, 290 yards receiving, and scoring six touchdowns in eight games while sharing duties at running back with Adam Provence and Jesse Giovannetti. (Herrera missed two games because of a leg injury.)
More is expected this season. Giovannetti has graduated, and Coach Frank Mazzotta moved Provence to wide receiver, leaving Herrera as the main running back.
"He is as fast as any kid that I've seen," Mazzotta said. "And also quick. He takes three steps and cuts; bam-bam-bam and then he's gone. He's explosive, but he has not reached full potential. He's a young boy turning into a man.
"We'll definitely feature him at running back. We'll run him and throw it to him. If he's not tired after the games then [the coaching staff] didn't do a good job."
Although Herrera said he remains close to Milhizer--"I still keep in touch with him"--he has noticed a different attitude under Mazzotta.
"It's been a more fun program," Herrera said. "[Mazzotta] is changing things from how we work in the weight program to the way we practice. We expect to be better this season and we have confidence the coaches will have us ready to have a good season."
At the same time, Herrera won't make predictions about a league race that seems wide open.
"I don't want to say," he said. "I think we have a chance to reach the playoffs but I thought that way last year too. Now I'll wait and see what happens. I'll let things fall in place."
Herrera said his youth will not be an excuse for being unprepared to play. In spite of his age, he expects to lead by example.
That probably means cutting out skateboarding and surfing, two of his favorite activities, until after the season.
"When Coach [Mazzotta] told me I was going to be the featured back, it meant I have to work real hard to show what I can do," Herrera said. "I don't want people to think of me as a kid. I want them to respect what I do."