Bill Foster has heard all the comments:
Van Nuys Grant is good only because it plays in a weak league.
The Lancers can't compete against the good City Section teams.
How can you compare dominating that league to winning the Coliseum League or the Marine League?
Foster has been a coach at Grant for 19 years, presiding over a program that has been the standard-bearer for the Sunset Six League since it was formed in 1998.
As reward for winning the league title four years in a row, the Lancers have been included in the City Championship division playoffs.
Some prize. Grant also has been eliminated in the first round the last three years and hasn't been very competitive in any of those losses, providing more ammunition for those who didn't believe the Lancers belong in the major division.
As Grant prepares to play Carson tonight in the quarterfinals, Foster says his team's reputation hasn't changed despite the 37-35 first-round victory over Los Angeles Fairfax.
"People are still taking that position," he said. "We've been the underdog before. People are going to pick Carson by two, three touchdowns. We're just going to try to come out and prove people wrong."
In all the years he has been the Lancers' coach, the only other playoff victory Foster remembers came in 1982, when he wasn't the head man. Could this be the year Grant (8-3) reverses its field?
In senior Anthony Dickson, the Lancers have a Division I-caliber running back capable of long runs every time he touches the ball. In senior Dashawn Smith, they have an athletic quarterback who can make plays with his arm and his feet.
Dickson has been the featured performer for two seasons. Despite sitting out a game because of a section-mandated suspension for unsportsmanlike conduct, he has rushed for 1,926 yards, averaging 11.4 yards per carry.
Against Fairfax, he ran for 246 yards and scored four touchdowns.
"The guy is a 4.3 sprinter who can also catch the ball out of the backfield," Foster said. "The one thing he has learned is running the ball inside. He's learned to go straight ahead and get six, seven, eight yards rather than try to outrun people on the outside."
Dickson has earned some admirers along the way.
"He definitely measures up to the best in the City," Gardena Coach Marshall Jones said. "He's got some intangibles that set him apart. He's got great balance, and it seems like he's always going forward."
Said Fairfax Coach Shane Cox: "He is a Division I running back without a doubt. Besides [Byron Ellis] from Venice, he's the best we've seen."
Smith has balanced the offense, completing 62% of his passes for 1,891 yards and 18 touchdowns.
While Dickson had to sit out a game against Tujunga Verdugo Hills because of two unsportsmanlike penalties the week before, Smith led the team to a 37-23 victory.
"I don't know why people don't respect Dashawn," Foster said. "Even in a game when Anthony doesn't play, he goes 20 for 25 and throws for over 250 yards. If they don't respect that, then there's not a whole lot I can do about it."
Grant's season has been all about earning respect. The doubters will point to a 41-6 loss to Granada Hills to open the season. The Lancers know they must represent themselves well tonight against Carson, one of the section's best programs for decades.
"We played some people in the preseason," Foster said. "We played Gardena when they were going good, and we played Fremont tough. If you want to expect to get to a playoff level of competition, you've got to play those teams."
After seven weeks of the season, Gardena looked like a challenger to Carson in the Marine League and a possible contender for the major-division championship.
But a one-sided loss to the Colts in Week 8 started a four-game slide that ended in a 63-14 drubbing by top-seeded Venice on Thursday in the first round of the playoffs.
It wasn't the kind of finish Jones wanted, but he refused to blame his players.
"We had some injuries, and we had a couple of kids ineligible in spots where we could not afford to lose them," he said. "We also played four pretty good teams in a row [Carson, Harbor City Narbonne, San Pedro and Venice]. We tried hard. [Losing] is a part of athletics, and it's a part of football."
Jones said he expects to see Venice playing for the championship Dec. 12 in the Coliseum.
"They're definitely the best team we've faced all year," he said.
If there is a team to keep an eye on early next season, it could be Los Angeles Fairfax. With seven sophomore starters, the Lions (5-5-1) struggled early, came within a few feet of stealing the Western League title from Venice and rallied from a 17-0 deficit against Grant before coming up short.
"I'm proud of my team," Cox said. "We lost four games by a total of six points. It's just the sign of a young team that can't finish. We scored 35 points in a half. The encouraging thing is, that's an indication of how we'll be in the next two years."