Heightened competition might make it tougher than ever to win a Southern Section football title, but coaches and players certainly cannot complain about a lack of opportunity.
This season, championships in 15 divisions--13 in 11-man and two in eight-man--will be up for grabs among the 358 schools that field football programs. That's one more than last year, when there were 12 divisions for 11-man programs.
Nevertheless, most of the strongest teams in the section are still competing for the coveted Division I championship.
Here is a look at 10 teams to watch:
1. LONG BEACH POLY (DIVISION I)
The Jackrabbits, defending Division I champions, are coming off a 14-0 season and are regarded as one of the most talented teams in the country.
Long Beach Poly is attempting to become the first school to repeat as champion of the Southern Section's largest division since Servite in 1982-83, and the first public school to accomplish the feat since Huntington Beach Edison in 1979-80.
Senior quarterback Chris Lewis, who has passed for 64 touchdowns over the last two seasons, leads a team that is fast and formidable on offense and defense. The Jackrabbits have three players who have run 100 meters in 10.5 seconds or less, including senior wide receiver Kareem Kelly, the defending state champion in the 200 meters, senior wider receiver Samie Parker and defensive back Darrell Rideaux, the defending state champion in the 100.
Halfback Larry Croom is Long Beach Poly's top breakaway threat in the backfield.
2. LA PUENTE BISHOP AMAT (DIVISION I)
The Lancers opened their season impressively last week, traveling to Illinois and defeating Naperville Central, 28-7. Bishop Amat, which last won the Division I title in 1995, is led by junior quarterback Chris Rix and senior running back Michael Wagner. Senior defensive back Dennis Wyrick is also a top college prospect but is expected to be a high draft pick in next summer's baseball draft.
3. LOS ALAMITOS (DIVISION I)
The Griffins are seeking their first section title since 1993, when they won the Division II championship, and they have the talent to do it. Wide receiver Keenan Howry is one of the best in the Southland. The Griffins also have two outstanding senior defensive linemen in 6-foot-3, 305-pound Bernard Riley and 6-3, 300-pound Sagan Atuatasi.
4. SANTA ANA MATER DEI (DIVISION I)
The Monarchs lost several outstanding players from last year's team that advanced to the Division I championship, but as usual, they've reloaded. Senior linebacker/fullback Kevin Mitchell and senior offensive lineman Lenny Vandermade are top college prospects. The Monarchs could have a chance to make history when they play Concord De La Salle on Sept. 26 at Edison Field. De La Salle opens the season with a national-record 76-game winning streak.
5. NEWHALL HART (DIVISION III)
The perennial Foothill League champions are regarded as the favorite to win the Division III title behind quarterback Kyle Boller and wide receiver Jerry Owens, who had 64 catches for 1,427 yards last season. Hart's offense will be tested, however, in a key nonleague game Oct. 10 against Loyola.
6. LOYOLA (DIVISION I)
The Cubs and their outstanding defense were less than six minutes from advancing to the Division I championship game last season before Long Beach Poly scored two late touchdowns.
This year's team has more overall speed and an experienced quarterback in senior Chris Peterson, who passed for more than 1,200 yards last season.
Senior Scott Tercero anchors the offensive line and senior linebacker Andrew Altman leads the defense.
Loyola's schedule includes defending Division IX champion Manhattan Beach Mira Costa, Hart, Bishop Amat and a terrific inner-city matchup with Crenshaw on Sept. 26.
7. SANTA MARGARITA (DIVISION VI)
The Eagles lost 14 starters from last year's 14-0 Division V championship team, but Coach Jim Hartigan says this is the biggest, strongest and fastest team he has coached at the school. Senior Greg Orlando, recovering from a broken wrist, replaces Carson Palmer at quarterback. Last year, he passed for six touchdowns, ran for five and caught passes for eight.
8. ANAHEIM ESPERANZA (DIVISION I)
Senior quarterback Grant Wagner passed for 2,009 yards and 17 touchdowns last season for the Aztecs, who have won or shared three consecutive Sunset League titles. Nate Steinbacher, 6-7 and 320, leads a huge offensive line. The defense is inexperienced, but the vaunted offense could make up for that.
9. FONTANA (DIVISION I)
The Steelers undoubtedly will have their hands full in the Citrus Belt League against Eisenhower and Redlands. But quarterback Scott Shepard, running backs Marquis Starks and Cameron Spence, receivers John MacMillan and Deondre Alexander and center Matt Milroy give Fontana an experienced nucleus on offense. Cornerback Vinny Fazio and linebacker Andy Garcia lead the defense.
10. CLAREMONT (DIVISION II)
The Wolfpack joins defending champion Palos Verdes Peninsula, Compton Dominguez and Chino Hills Ayala among the elite teams in Division II. Claremont is led by senior running back Deon Burnett, who gained 1,957 yards and scored 28 touchdowns in 11 games. Defensive lineman Issac Brown is one of the top prospects at his position in the Southland.
1997 FOOTBALL CHAMPIONS
4-A Division: San Pedro
3-A Division: Woodland Hills El Camino Real
Division I: Long Beach Poly
Division II: Palos Verdes Peninsula
Division III: Arroyo Grande
Division IV: Chino
Division V: Santa Margarita
Division VI: Hacienda Heights Wilson
Division VII: Bloomington
Division VIII: Laguna Hills
Division IX: Manhattan Beach Mira Costa
Division X: Moorpark
Division XI: Lancaster Paraclete
Division XII: Redlands Arrowhead Christian
Eight-man large: Santa Maria Valley Christian
Eight-man small: Arcadia Rio Hondo Prep