Valencia Rolls On for Old Times' Sake

Times Staff Writer

A steady drizzle soaked the Placentia Valencia football team earlier this week as it prepared for tonight's Empire League game against Anaheim Katella. Neither the players nor coaches strayed from their usual practice patterns, even as puddles formed under their cleats.

The Tigers (6-0) are too busy creating their own watermark this season to be forced indoors. Ranked No. 19 in the Southland by The Times and No. 2 in the Southern Section Division VI coaches' poll, they've drowned their first six opponents by a combined score of 211-43.

It may be too early to say Valencia has returned to its playing level of 1983 to 1993, when it appeared in five section title games -- winning in 1987, 1991 and 1992 -- and won eight league championships. But so far, this year's team is looking better than any of its predecessors over the last 10 years, who combined for a 61-53-2 record but never advanced past the first round of the playoffs.

Coach Mike Marrujo, who can earn his 200th victory at the school with a win tonight at Glover Stadium in Anaheim, had previously blamed a change in the school's demographics for his teams' poor showings. However, thanks to the right combination this fall, a victory over Katella will represent Valencia's best start since it finished 14-0 in 1991.

"Things are starting to swing around a little bit," said Marrujo, whose Tigers are on course to qualify for the playoffs for the 23rd time in his 24 seasons at Valencia.

A common denominator between this season's team and the one that finished unbeaten 13 years ago is speed at the skill positions, Marrujo said.

"Speed makes up for a lot of mistakes," he said.

Leading the charge is senior Rylon Thomas, a three-year starter at running back who has gained 936 yards and scored 18 touchdowns this season. At 5 feet 8 and 185 pounds, he has also earned a starting job at inside linebacker.

"He's just a heck of an athlete," said Marrujo, who added that he would rather not compare his teams or players.

Valencia's backfield has featured a few good running backs over the years, including Ray Pallares, who rushed for 5,398 yards from 1983 to 1985, breaking state and Orange County career records at the time, and Chris Draft, who graduated in 1993, went on to Stanford and is a linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons.

"We've had some guys," Marrujo said. "I'm just glad I've had the opportunity to coach them all."

Complementing Thomas are Valencia's receivers and defensive backs, including Rashad Chambers, a 6-3, 205-pound senior, and Ray Magee, a 6-4, 190-pound junior. Anchoring the defensive line is Spencer Gasu, a 6-3, 270-pound senior.

When asked to throw the ball, quarterback Luis Cruz has been efficient, having completed 51 of 70 passes for eight touchdowns with only one interception.

Last month, Valencia and Villa Park met in Week 1 for the 13th consecutive season. Normally, these games are settled by less than a touchdown, but a year ago, Villa Park won, 21-0. This year, with 16 of 22 starting positions filled by returning players, Valencia won, 35-7.

"They're solid," Villa Park Coach Pat Mahoney said. "They're the best team we've played this year."

Valencia won't have to wait until the playoffs to see how it stacks up against the division's top-ranked team, Orange Lutheran. The Lancers, ranked No. 11 by The Times, travel to Valencia for a regular-season finale Nov. 12, with, perhaps, the Empire League title and the division's top seeding on the line.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday October 22, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction Valencia High Tigers -- An article in Thursday's Sports section about Valencia High School of Placentia's football team said the team hadn't advanced past the first round of the Southern Section playoffs in the last 10 seasons. The Tigers advanced to the quarterfinals in 1994, 1996, 1999, 2000 and 2002 and to the semifinals in 2001.
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