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Four of a Kind

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A tsunami hitting Zuma Beach wouldn’t compare to the unprecedented wave of Valley quarterbacks committing early to major colleges.

In the last six months, four quarterbacks who live within a 10-mile radius will have accepted scholarships before their senior years.

Even more astounding, Matt Cassel of Chatsworth High, Casey Clausen of Alemany, Zac Wasserman of Westlake and Brandon Hance of Taft attended Chaminade Middle School.

Cassel, Clausen and Wasserman were at the Chatsworth campus in 1994. Cassel left the following year, when Hance arrived.

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“It’s weird,” Wasserman said. “When we were in middle school, you would never think of all four of us as major-college recruits and top quarterbacks.”

Each went their separate ways for high school, making choices based on where their passing skills could best attract the attention of college coaches.

They achieved exactly what they intended. Cassel has committed to USC, Wasserman to Penn State, Hance to Purdue and Clausen is deciding between Tennessee and Colorado.

Each quarterback will make an appearance on Fox Sports West 2 this fall, with Cassel facing Hance on Nov. 4 at Chatsworth.

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Rating one over the other is difficult. Ask four coaches who’s the best, and you’ll likely get four different responses.

Hance is the quickest, Clausen the most physical, Wasserman the strongest and Cassel the most athletic.

Hance might have the best arm of the group, but he’s the smallest, barely 6 feet 1. His performance in the City Championship game last year, when he passed for 288 yards and four touchdowns, reinforced his reputation as a clutch player.

Wasserman, 6-3 and 210 pounds, has the biceps of a linebacker. He’s the prototype drop-back passer. Give him a little time, and he’ll hit his target.

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But force Wasserman to change his routine and the chance for error increases measurably. He has worked hard to learn to improvise and that will be the key to his senior season.

Clausen plays like an immovable object. He looks and acts tough. At 6-4 1/2 and 205 pounds, he can withstand violent hits in the pocket and inflict punishment when he scrambles.

The son of a coach, he possesses football knowledge and instincts that give him an edge.

Adding creativity to his repertoire is his major task for the next level.

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Cassel, 6-4 1/2 and 208 pounds, is the great unfinished product. He creates excitement and anticipation with flashes of brilliance.

Cassel’s physical skills are unquestioned, but plenty of fine-tuning is needed to fulfill the potential everyone sees.

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Somewhere, there’s a sports god smiling every time Cassel comes near an athletic field.

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Whether hugging his coach during a heated moment in practice or singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” while announcing a baseball game, Cassel fits the profile of a teenager engaged in a never-ending pursuit of fun.

He’s the Jim Carrey of the high school ranks.

While visiting his doctor for a physical and learning he was still a half-inch short of 6-5, Cassel pleaded for his doctor to tinker with his growth plates.

“Come on, Doc, there’s got to be another half inch in there,” he says.

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In his living room, Cassel tosses a football to his mother, placing his future in her ability to catch.

“OK, Mom, this is for three interceptions my sophomore year at USC,” he says. “OK, Mom, this is for no interceptions my senior year at Chatsworth.”

If only USC Coach Paul Hackett realizes what he’s in for. . . .

Strangers might conclude Cassel is better suited to play kicker than quarterback. But teammates respond to his cool, calm leadership in pressure-filled moments. And he’s always capable of a sudden act of courage, hurdling over a defender on the way to the end zone or flinging a pass between two defensive backs.

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There’s no question about Cassel’s intelligence or work ethic, either. He has a 3.8 grade-point average and spent the summer training so intensely, you’d think he was preparing for the Olympics.

On Sundays, he’d wake at 6:30 a.m. and drive to Brentwood to run stairs. Then he’d drive to the beach to run on the sand. During the week, he lifted weights and ran more.

“I’m in better shape than I’ve been in my life because I’ve been running so much,” he said. “I can run two miles without dying. My stamina is up, my speed is up.”

It’s the first summer Cassel has focused exclusively on football. Since he was 12 and played in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., baseball was considered his best sport.

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But after passing for 2,890 yards and 26 touchdowns last season, Cassel began to make a serious commitment to football, culminating this summer with his decision not to play American Legion baseball.

“I needed this off-season to get better as a quarterback and to get into shape,” he said. “I want to be the best. I worked my butt off. I’ve never done this before in my life.

“It’s the first time I buckled down and said, ‘I got to do this for myself and my future.’ ”

*

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Wherever Hance goes, a football is usually nearby. It’s as natural for him to cradle a football in his right arm as wear a watch.

“That’s my pride and joy,” he said.

He sleeps with eight footballs resting at the side of his bed. If you’re a friend of Hance, you’re expected to catch passes at a moment’s notice.

After playing offensive lineman in his first season of tackle football as a 6-year-old, Hance has trained to be a quarterback.

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He possesses all the intangibles coaches look for--mental toughness, leadership, self-confidence, and a willingness to work hard.

Nothing was going to prevent him from realizing his dream of playing college football. That’s why he transferred from Notre Dame to Taft after his sophomore season. He knew the Knights had a top-notch program, but he concluded Taft offered a better opportunity to showcase his passing skills.

Without varsity experience, he took over the Taft offense, completed 58% of his passes and finished with 2,038 yards and 22 touchdowns in helping the Toreadors win their first City title.

During the off-season, he grew an inch, gained 15 pounds, improved his speed and strength, and convinced college recruiters he could play at the next level.

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“I just worked real hard on my footwork,” he said. “I think what drew the coaches in was my quick feet. I kept improving.”

Hance’s development prompted Coach Troy Starr to install the shotgun formation for the coming season. Hance is preparing by taking snaps from his mother in the living room so he can work on finding the laces quicker.

Hance’s two years at Notre Dame did provide invaluable insight. He got to see how tailback Justin Fargas went from an unknown sophomore to a prep All-American.

“His work ethic was incredible,” Hance said. “He served as a role model of how to be the best.”

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*

Put Wasserman on a deserted island, with no electricity or telephone, and he’d fit in just fine as long as there was a football and someone to catch his passes.

There’s never an off day on the Wasserman calendar. If he’s not working in the weight room, he’s running sprints. If he’s not studying defenses on video, he’s glued to the television hoping to pick up a pointer from an NFL or college quarterback.

Nothing has been left to chance in his desire to become a top quarterback. When it was time to pick a high school, the Tarzana resident shopped around for a coach and an environment that would best fit his needs.

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He settled on Westlake, a school with a strong passing tradition. He became the varsity starter as a sophomore, but there were trying times. He didn’t know the offense and struggled when the pass protection broke down.

“I wasn’t really sure what I should do with the ball--dive, run, keep running?” he said.

He improved as a junior, as a passer and leader. He finished with 2,404 yards and 22 touchdowns. In Westlake’s first-round playoff loss to San Marcos, he displayed toughness and perseverance in trying to rally the Warriors.

“Obviously, I’ve matured a lot,” he said. “The offense is natural to me now. I was kind of shy. I was like, ‘Should I make this throw?’ I was indecisive.

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“I’m stronger. I throw the ball a lot harder. In my sophomore year, I was very intimidated. It was like, ‘Whoa, this is varsity.’ Now I have complete confidence in myself.”

*

As a sixth-grader, Clausen was one of 10 players to try out for quarterback on the Chaminade flag football team. No one had a chance to beat him out. Clausen was only 12, but he knew the game far better than most 15-year-olds.

“I’ve been around it since I was little,” he said.

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His father, Jim, has been a high school and junior college coach. Casey didn’t play tackle football until his freshman year because he was too busy being a ball boy for his father’s teams.

Cassel, Hance and Wasserman all played youth football.

Clausen gained experience by reading defenses and learning offensive formations by watching videos with his father.

“I understand the game,” he said. “You can be the best guy in the world, but if you don’t understand and can’t relate to defenses. . . . I always wanted to be a quarterback. He’s the leader of the team. All eyes are on him. The way he goes, pretty much your team goes.”

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Clausen attended La Canada as a freshman, then transferred to Alemany to learn the passing game from Coach Jim Bonds, former UCLA quarterback.

Clausen has thrived under Bonds’ tutelage. Last season, he passed for 3,213 yards and 27 touchdowns.

“The physicalness is what I like about [football],” Clausen said. “At any given time, you can light somebody up. The guys are always taking shots at me.”

Clausen understands the psychological and physical aspects of competition. He trusts his ability and has picked up insights from Bonds that will move him closer to becoming a complete quarterback.

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“I’ve learned from Coach Bonds that the most important play for a quarterback is the next play,” Clausen said. “If something bad happens, you get right back in there.”

So which college came away with the best quarterback?

Will Cassel be the successor to Carson Palmer at USC?

Did Purdue get a steal in Hance?

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Is Wasserman the savior for Penn State?

Will Clausen quarterback Tennessee to another national championship or help Coach Gary Barnett restore Colorado to national prominence?

“It’s going to be fun to see how everybody turns out,” Cassel said. “Each of us has our own little spot in which we shine.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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HOW THEY RATE

Rank Player School Ht. Wt. Yr.

1. Casey Clausen Alemany 6-4 1/2 205 Sr.

* Maturing into complete, competent passer

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2. Matt Cassel Chatsworth 6-4 1/2 208 Sr.

* Paul Hackett knows how to spot a top QB

3. Zac Wasserman Westlake 6-3 210 Sr.

* Can sit back in pocket and fire away

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4. Brandon Hance Taft 6-1 187 Sr.

* Might have strongest arm in region

5. Jason Winn Granada Hills 6-2 180 Sr.

* Made the most summer improvement of any QB

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6. Chris Lombardo Newbury Park 6-2 190 Sr.

* Will benefit from efficient passing offense

7. Kyle Matter Hart 6-3 180 Jr.

* Another QB named Kyle is ready to lead Hart

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8. Rob Fockaert Paraclete 6-2 185 Sr.

* Most underrated QB in region

9. Eddie Whitaker Cleveland 6-4 210 Sr.

* Possesses lots of talent

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10. John Sciarra St. Francis 6-1 190 Jr.

* Proved as a sophomore he can be a standout

11. Kyle Loughman Buena 6-2 195 Sr.

* Has led team to consecutive league championships

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12. Scott Vossmeyer Crescenta Valley 6-3 205 Sr.

* Capable of having impact season

13. Joe Kroells Burroughs 6-3 200 Sr.

* Passed for 2,154 yards as a junior

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14. Jonathon Brewster Notre Dame 6-0 175 Sr.

* Never doubt his all-around athletic skills

15. David Parker Saugus 6-2 200 Sr.

* Passed for 2,140 yards, 20 touchdowns last season

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16. Michael Spangle Canoga Park 5-10 180 Sr.

* A three-year starter who means everything to Hunters

SNEAK PEEK

Thursday: Running backs. Manuel White of Valencia

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Friday: Offensive linemen. Steve Nevarez of San Fernando

Saturday: Wide receivers. Keary Colbert of Hueneme

Sunday: Tight ends: Will Svitek of Newbury Park

Sept. 1: Defensive linemen: Travis Johnson of Notre Dame

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Sept. 2: Linebackers: Patrick Norton of Hart

Sept. 3: Defensive backs: Michael Washington of Paraclete

Sept. 4: Kickers: Drew Thomas of Westlake


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