Room to Grow

Times Staff Writer

To fully grasp what it means to be part of Encino Crespi High's resurgence in football under Coach Troy Thomas, one must comprehend the significance of earning a locker in "the room."

It is a smelly, dank, moldy place in the heart of a cramped locker room, and yet there is nowhere the 30 young men afforded membership would rather be.

Most members of the exclusive fraternity wear shoulder pads and carry helmets; one wears a kilt and carries bagpipes.

They all play for Crespi, though sophomore bagpiper Matt McNicoll's contribution comes before and after the games. Dressed in full Scottish regalia, he induces goose bumps from nearly everyone wearing the school's beloved brown and white when he leads the team on and off the field.

"He's just as much a part of our team as our quarterback," Thomas said of McNicoll.

The creation of a special place for the core of his team's leaders is just one indication of the strategy Thomas is using as he tries to restore his alma mater to the lofty status it enjoyed in the mid-1980s. That is when it became the only San Fernando Valley school to win a Southern Section Division I title and opened the following season as the top-ranked team in the nation.

Those with access have demonstrated a commitment -- no matter how unconventional -- to a program that was 1-19 in the two seasons before Thomas became coach in December 2000.

It is not an all-aboard call.

There were players during Thomas' first season who blew off 6 a.m. workouts, who fought among themselves in the locker room after games, who openly confronted teachers in the classroom. Many of them are no longer around.

"We had to weed some guys out," Thomas said, "because they didn't know what it took to build a successful program."

The 30 varsity players who remain are a hardened bunch driven by a mantra that challenges them to play to the best of their ability despite the likelihood that they are smaller and slower than most opponents.

Their best has been good enough to put Crespi on pace for its best record since 1986, when Thomas was a senior defensive back for the Big Five Conference champions. The Celts finished the regular season 9-1 overall, 5-0 and champions of the Del Rey League after a 29-6 victory over Los Angeles Cathedral on Friday night at Downey St. Matthias High. It was Crespi's first league title since 1991.

"It's getting back to the way it used to be here, a football powerhouse," senior wide receiver Travis Daniels said. "The program has come a long way from the two-year slump we were in."

Thomas would be the first to concede that Crespi is still a ways removed from the big time, though. The Celts dropped to Division III in 1998 before taking a plunge to Division X in 2002 because of a short-term inability to field a junior varsity team.

Senior quarterback Kevin Vollmer, a member of the freshman team when the varsity was in the throes of an 0-10 season in 2000, often wondered why the varsity even bothered.

"When they lost," Vollmer recalled, "they just joked about it. They would hear what everyone at school was saying, 'Yeah, you're a joke,' and they believed it."

That mentality changed when Thomas addressed his team for the first time in the school gym.

"He wanted to bring back the old-school Crespi, the 1986 team," Vollmer said. "He started firing up some of the guys."

One of Thomas' first moves was to bring back "countdowns," a synchronized series of 14 sit-ups and push-ups performed on Saturday mornings to symbolize the number of games it takes to play in a section championship. If one player loses count or displays poor form, the entire team must start over.

Thomas also made significant upgrades to the locker room to give his players a better sense of the program's rich history. He plastered the walls with dozens of pictures of Celts in their college uniforms and hung plastic jersey-shaped cutouts of the 13 pro players the school has produced. Six, including former San Francisco 49er Pro Bowl center Randy Cross, have returned to autograph their cutouts.

Nonetheless, Thomas found some of his players didn't believe an all-boys school with an enrollment of about 500 could hold its own against larger schools. When Thomas' team was at a summer passing-league game before the 2001 season, a player from North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake wondered aloud whether Crespi would win a game that year.

"I looked around like, 'Is anyone going to say anything?' " Thomas remembered. "It didn't even faze our players. It really hurt me. I was here when we walked into those passing leagues and we were the team to beat."

Crespi quickly quieted its critics by winning its 2001 opener to snap a 16-game losing streak en route to a 4-5 finish. The Celts went 9-3 last season, finishing second behind Gardena Serra in league play and advancing to the quarterfinals of the Division X playoffs.

"Troy has done a great job," said Westlake Oaks Christian Coach Bill Redell, who guided Crespi to a 43-16-1 record during its heyday in the mid-1980s. "He took over a program that really was dying and has brought it back very quickly."

While senior leaders such as defensive end Jesse Goldhor insist nothing less than a section title will do this season, Thomas said he measures success in more intangible ways.

"I don't think our success is based on how many championships we win," he said. "It's more about how our guys play and how we represent the school."

In that sense, Thomas looks at the 12 seniors who have persevered through four years of Crespi football, starting with the freshman team and working their way up to varsity, and already considers his Celts big winners.

Perhaps most emblematic of this group is Jacob Pope, an average-sized, not particularly speedy center who showed up every day at non-mandatory weightlifting sessions and gave his best in practice despite not playing much his first three years.

Now Pope is a starter who grades out high on film every week.

"Now we have guys that look up to him and think, 'If that guy can do it, why can't I?' " Thomas said. "That's how, to me, the tradition is going to get going again."

The success Crespi has enjoyed under its exuberant 34-year-old coach has once again made the school's Encino campus a destination point for young men who want to play football. Crespi has 135 players; 70 are freshmen. Fielding a junior varsity team is no longer a problem, and Thomas hopes the revived interest can spearhead a return, eventually, to Division I.

"We'll start getting better athletes now," Thomas said. "That's when we can really make a big step into changing our program."

Thomas said he believes the biggest changes come from within. That's why he has brought in a culture coach, Foxx Jantz, who tapes inspirational sayings throughout the locker room.

Coaches also stir emotion by handing out unique postgame awards, including hard hats to top linemen, bottles of Orange Crush to players who delivered big hits and a block of wood to the player of the game. The most coveted award, a box of nails, is handed out last. It goes to the player who best represents the team on and off the field.

"Nails hold things together," Thomas said. "We're saying, 'Hey, you're nails.' "

Not everyone can be nails, though, and that is why not every varsity player has a locker in the special room. There is a freshman who has a spot in there. So do several junior varsity players.

And one very special bagpipe player.

Said Thomas: "He's got to put his bagpipes somewhere, doesn't he?"

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