Not long ago, referring to Irvine as a dark horse in the Southern Section playoffs was as unimaginable as the Sea View League's representatives posting a 1-3 record after the first round of Division VI play this season.
The Vaqueros won four section titles in five championship-game appearances from 1991-2000. And if Irvine didn't win the title during that time, another league member did.
But as the Vaqueros prepare for their quarterfinal game against Lakewood Mayfair tonight, they're not among the favorites to go all the way. Those teams are defending champion Hacienda Heights Los Altos, Orange Lutheran, and Suburban League powers Mayfair and La Mirada, which played for the 2001 title.
"The division has changed a lot," said Irvine Coach Terry Henigan, in his 23rd season at the school.
So, it appears, has the Sea View League.
After its members played against each other in three consecutive Division VI championship games between 1998 and 2000, the league had no representative in the 2001 title game. Like this year, three of its four teams were also eliminated after last year's first round.
Some explanation for the decline can be traced to the departure of Santa Margarita for the all-parochial Serra League in 1999, and the emergence in the last four years of Mission Viejo, whose program has attracted South Orange County athletes.
Others simply say the talent pool is deeper in other leagues.
"High school football goes in cycles," Newport Harbor Coach Jeff Brinkley said. "You just get the best athletes in your neighborhood, sometimes you go 14-0 and sometimes you go 7-4."
One definite blow to Irvine's program was the opening of Irvine Northwood four years ago. Northwood attracted many of the area's top freshman and sophomore student athletes.
Irvine didn't feel the effects until after it had defeated Newport Harbor, 14-0, to win the Division VI championship in 2000. The following year, the Vaqueros, who had lost many players to graduation, finished 2-6-1, 0-4 in league play.
Because Henigan had so few experienced players that season, many sophomores received playing time. This season, many of them are seniors and most belong to a group of 15 returning starters, including 10 on offense. Kamran Moussa-zahab, Dan Worthington and Anthony Tumminia are three-year starters on the offensive line.
The Vaqueros are 9-2 -- their losses by a combined seven points -- and shared the league title with Santa Ana Foothill and Aliso Niguel.
Don't be late if you're planning to attend tonight's Division II quarterfinal game between Diamond Bar and visiting Mission Viejo. Anything can happen when these teams kick off.
The Brahmas have recovered three of their kickoffs in the last five weeks, helping them reach the playoffs and earn a rematch with top-seeded Mission Viejo.
In a 29-20 victory over Rancho Cucamonga on Friday, Diamond Bar spotted a hole in the Cougars' coverage and kicked the ball toward the sideline and into the wind at Chaffey College. The Brahmas raced Rancho Cucamonga to the ball and recovered it at the 20-yard line. They followed with their third field goal of the half to take a 22-0 lead.
Diamond Bar (8-3) used a more predictable method to regain possession a week earlier in the closing minutes against Chino in a Sierra League game. After giving up an intentional safety, the Brahmas recovered an on-side kick. They proceeded to pull to within one point after scoring a touchdown with 37 seconds left. The Brahmas' two-point conversion attempt failed, however, and Chino won, 19-18.
Diamond Bar also recovered a short kickoff during a 17-14 victory over Chino Hills on Oct. 24.
"When we see holes, we try to hit them," Diamond Bar Coach Manny Saiz said.
Top-seeded Mission Viejo also isn't afraid to try something different on kickoffs.
In last season's first-round game against Diamond Bar, the Diablos had just tied the score, 14-14, in the third quarter, and when they caught the Brahmas' front line dropping back early on the kickoff, kicker Jeff Ferrier dribbled the ball 10 yards and recovered the ball. Mission Viejo then marched down the field to score, taking the lead for good in a 28-14 victory.
Chino has been punishing opponents with its own stellar special teams play all season.
Punter Joe Valdez, a senior, has been burying teams deep in their own territory, and kicker Durrell Chamorro has sent every kickoff into the end zone and has converted 10 of 15 field-goal attempts.
On the season, Valdez has punted 37 times but only seven have been returned, giving him a net average of 41 yards. He has placed eight inside the 10-yard line and five inside the five.
"We really want to emphasize placing the ball and putting the opponent in poor field position," said Brad Richardson, Chino's special teams coach.