The poem always begins with the same line: We are the men of Servite.
It’s simple and direct and conveys a world of meaning to anyone who has attended Anaheim Servite High.
Larry Toner, football coach at Servite, composes a poem each season. Every couple of weeks he adds a new line based on his assessment of the team.
Last year, with 18 juniors starting, Toner wrote about inexperience: We are eager and we are young and sometimes we get stung. The Friars went 5-4-1 and missed the Southern Section playoffs.
This year, the poem encompasses the strength, domination and glory by those who cloak themselves in the black-and-white uniforms of Servite: Dreadnaughts of crushing power, who the black and white ensoul. Victory is but our way of life, God is our source and our goal.
This season, victory has been their way of life.
Just as it used to be.
Servite, a major-division power during the 1970s and ‘80s, faded into mediocrity during the ‘90s but has had a resurgence this season. The Friars, ranked No. 13 by The Times and No. 6 in Division I, opened Serra League play Friday night with a 37-20 victory at La Puente Bishop Amat and improved to 6-0, their best start since 1988.
The schedule, which has included victories over Lawndale Leuzinger (35-14), Orange Lutheran (34-3), Tustin (28-7), Long Beach Wilson (41-12) and Huntington Beach Edison (32-7), doesn’t get any easier. But despite playing in the recently revamped and high-powered Serra League, which includes No. 2 Santa Margarita, No. 7 Los Angeles Loyola and No. 14 Santa Ana Mater Dei, the general thinking at Servite is that the glory days are back.
The team has plenty of size -- 6-foot-3, 265-pound Ryan Kalil and 6-3, 275-pound Sean Estrada lead the way -- and speed -- receiver Matt Slater was the Southern Section Division III champion in the 100 and 200 meters last spring and defensive back Darryl Williams can run with him.
Joel Rubalcaba (386 yards) and Chris Blanco (227) make a formidable 1-2 punch at running back, and quarterback Ryan Coffelt, who completed eight of 12 passes for 193 yards against Bishop Amat, has a strong arm and enough speed to have qualified for the Southern Section finals in the 100 hurdles during track season.
For the season, Coffelt has completed 53 of 82 passes for 1,093 yards and nine touchdowns with four interceptions.
Even with all the offense, the strength of the team might be its defense. Servite has given up only 63 points in six games -- only 30 have been given up by the first-team defense.
Friday night, Bishop Amat trailed, 17-13, early in the second half, but Servite’s defense forced two turnovers and the offense converted both into scores.
Bishop Amat got a late touchdown to become the first Servite opponent this season to score more than 14 points.
Servite also has loads of experience -- those 18 juniors who started last year have all returned.
“We think we can be the best team ever at Servite,” linebacker Dillon Bedard said. “All we think about is going undefeated. We don’t want one loss.”
Going undefeated, of course, means beating Mater Dei. The last time Servite did that was also 1988. The Servite-Mater Dei rivalry is among the fiercest in Southland football. It began in 1961, the year after Servite fielded its first varsity team, and has been renewed every year since.
Mater Dei leads the series, 25-14, and there have been two ties, including a scoreless finish in 1992. That’s the closest Servite has come to winning in the last 13 games. They meet again Nov. 2.
“We try not to look too far ahead, but it’s hard not to think about Mater Dei,” Kalil said. “But we think this is the team to end the streak. Our attitude isn’t if we are going to beat them, but how bad we are going to beat them.”
The football tradition at Servite runs deep. The Friars played in the ultra-competitive Angelus League from 1961-91. They won the league title seven times and made the major-division playoffs 20 times, including 17 consecutive years, from 1972-88. In 1982-83, Servite was top dog in the Southland after winning Southern Section titles in the Big Five Conference, the top division.
Steve Beuerlein, the Denver Bronco reserve quarterback who led the NFL with 4,436 yards passing while playing for Carolina in 1999, was the Servite quarterback in ’82. Derek Brown, who had a successful career at Nebraska and started for the New Orleans Saints in 1993, was the Servite running back from 1986 to ’88.
“The legacy is all around you here,” Kalil said. “It’s a different kind of feeling. At first you’re like, ‘What is this tradition all about?’ Then you go through it and you start to feel a part of the fraternity.”
It’s inescapable. Many of the team members have fathers, brothers or uncles who played at Servite. Four of the assistant coaches are Servite graduates and two others had sons who went to Servite.
Former football players routinely come back to campus to talk to the team about the values and discipline they took with them from Servite.
That’s what made the last 13 years so difficult. The Friars won four league titles in five years from 1994 to ’98 and twice played in Southern Section finals during that span, but that was in Division V and the Golden West League, a downgrade from the Angelus League and Division I.
“Our alumni were furious about that,” Toner said of the Angelus League vote to disband in 1991. “We want to play in the top division. We teach our kids to seek excellence and greatness in all aspects of their lives. In [the Golden West League], we were bigger and had better athletes than those other teams. There’s no greatness in winning those games.”
The poem is not yet finished. The players expect another line or two from Toner, but they don’t know when it will come. Perhaps the coach is waiting to see how the team will handle the rest of Serra League play. Before Friday night, the seniors had not won a league game at any level.
History indicates Servite will collapse. Last year, the Friars started 4-0, then were 0-2-1 in league games and missed the playoffs. In 2000, they started 4-0, went 1-2 in league play and lost in the first round of the playoffs. In 1999, they started 5-2, went 1-2 in league and missed the playoffs.
“People think we’re just a preseason team,” said Coffelt, the quarterback. “They think, ‘Oh they’re good now, but they’ll choke.’ Well, we’re not going to let that happen. Our goals are a [Southern Section] championship, a league championship and beating Mater Dei.”
What a final verse that would make.
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Servite opened the season 5-0 for the first time since 1988, which was also the last time the Friars beat Mater Dei. Here’s a look at their seasons since:
*--* Year Record vs. Mater Dei Playoffs 1988 10-3-0 W, 42-24 Div. I semifinalist 1989 3-7-0 L, 35-24 Did not qualify 1990 2-8-0 L, 28-24 Did not qualify 1991 6-4-0 L, 44-0 Did not qualify 1992 9-2-1 T, 0-0 Div. II quarterfinalist 1993 3-7-0 L, 21-0 Did not qualify 1994 11-3-0 L, 21-0 Div. V runner-up 1995 11-3-0 L, 55-14 Div. V runner-up 1996 11-2-0 L, 41-7 Div. V semifinalist 1997 6-6-0 L, 47-0 Div. V quarterfinalist 1998 7-6-0 L, 27-17 Div. VI semifinalist 1999 6-4-0 L, 39-25 Did not qualify 2000 7-4-0 L, 31-21 Div. I first round 2001 5-4-1 L, 19-0 Did not qualify