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St. Monica’s football team wasn’t in it to win it, until it did

A few minutes before 5:30 p.m., a park supervisor walks over and tells the St. Monica High football players to wrap things up.

There is still much to do, more drills, more conditioning work, but the Mariners have run out of time.

With no stadium of their own, they practice at a city park beside Santa Monica Airport, scrimmaging amid the roar of approaching planes. Now, they must give way to a girls’ youth soccer team waiting on the sideline.

“We only have the field for two hours,” their coach, Larry Muno, says. “That’s a problem.”

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Not that Muno and his rag-tag squad complain too loudly — they are glad to be practicing anywhere in mid-November.

Over the last five years, this small Catholic school produced some of the worst football in state history, losing 37 straight games. The team was so bad it struggled just to fill the roster.

“Guys didn’t have it in them,” receiver Sam Holguin recalls. “They didn’t have the motivation.”

All of which makes this season feel miraculous.

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St. Monica won five of its last six games to capture the Santa Fe League title and now joins the best teams from across Southern California in the playoffs.

Even the park supervisor has heard the news, pausing before he returns to his office.

“Good luck,” he calls out.

The tale of the Mariners’ resurrection begins with a group of downtrodden athletes, a man who had never coached tackle football before and a philosophy that might make the game’s purists cringe.

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Looking back at videotape of the darkest days, Sam describes his team as if it was a collection of zombies trudging through games. Sometimes the Mariners lost by dozens of points. Other times they committed crucial fourth-quarter errors.

Each week, players convinced themselves the losing would end. They told classmates that a victory was imminent.

“Then you’d come back to school on Monday knowing you had been blown out again,” says Tommy Murray, a former running back who graduated last spring. “You had to go right back to practice. … It was so frustrating.”

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As the defeats piled up, stretching from 2005 through 2008, some of the school’s best athletes shied away from football.

“I knew they were pretty bad,” senior Matt Partyka says. “So I just played soccer.”

St. Monica has never been an athletic powerhouse. It isn’t large enough, not with fewer than 600 high school students attending classes on a campus that dates to the 1930s and sits blocks from the ocean in Santa Monica.

Still, it galled some administrators and alumni to see the team wallow. Three head coaches came and went in as many seasons.

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“We couldn’t find the right set of coaches,” school President Thom Gasper says. “They would get frustrated when they didn’t see immediate success.”

The futility ended with a 21-19 victory over Salesian High in the final game of the 2008 season. The Mariners hugged and cried as if they had won a championship.

In fact, they had finished 1-8, and their coach at the time was subsequently fired. St. Monica was still looking for that elusive combination of skills and patience.

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Football ran in his blood.

The son of an NFL agent who once represented Joe Montana, Muno became a star linebacker at Bishop Montgomery High in Torrance during the 1980s and accepted a scholarship to Rutgers.

But four years at the college level burned him out.

“It can become a job,” he says. “After I graduated, I got into a variety of different things.”

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He taught golf. He ran a trucking company. In 1994, he became a firefighter in Vernon.

A few years later, his wife wanted to get their two children into a Catholic school in Manhattan Beach and, hoping to gain favor with administrators, volunteered Muno to coach the seventh- and eighth-graders in flag football.

Slowly, an old flame rekindled.

“We had seven kids when I first started,” he says. “The next year we got up to nine. And then we started winning.”

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The Archdiocese of Los Angeles hired him to oversee athletics at all of its grammar schools in 2005. Muno drew up schedules and arranged for referees in what amounted to a second full-time job. Then, in 2009, a friend suggested he interview for the St. Monica opening.

Muno figured he could keep working at the fire department if he saved his vacation days for the season.

School officials were not concerned. Nor did they care that he had no experience coaching the game with helmets and shoulder pads.

“I liked the type of person Larry was,” Gasper says. “I thought he had the ability to motivate kids.”

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Not long after arriving at St. Monica, Muno attended a soccer game. Afterward, he asked the players whether any of them might be interested in signing up for football.

“I went over to hear what he had to say,” Partyka recalls. “It kind of interested me.”

The new guy possessed a solid brand of charisma that bypassed rah-rah and went directly to straight talk. But Muno was banking on more than his personality. A decade of working with kids had convinced him that a new generation of athletes required a new approach.

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“They have so many opportunities now,” he says. “You have to compete for their interest.”

So he used a word rarely uttered by coaches: Fun. He promised that St. Monica would ditch its traditional ground game — three yards and a cloud of dust — for an up-tempo passing attack.

Chucking the ball around the yard, was how he described it. Lots of scoring.

“We weren’t used to scoring — if we scored even one touchdown in a game, it was a big deal,” recalls Murray, who was a senior when Muno arrived. “Everyone got pretty excited.”

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But when only 21 students showed up for the first practice, it became evident the coach’s gambit, while meant to entice, was also a necessity.

“I saw the personnel we had and I knew we weren’t going to blow anybody off the ball,” Muno says. “We had to pass.”

Now all he needed was someone to run his offense.

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Partyka does not look like a football player. At 5 feet 7, he is too short.

That first spring, during an early practice, he was trying out at receiver and, after running a route, tossed the ball back to the coaches. His throwing motion caught their attention. Just that quickly, the Mariners had found their quarterback.

Not only could Partyka locate open receivers — peering around taller linemen — he had a knack for sidestepping the rush and zipping downfield. He quickly grasped Muno’s scheme.

In the 2009 opener against Mary Star of the Sea, a San Pedro high school, he led his team to 46 points — nearly matching the total for one of those losing seasons. The next Monday, eight more kids showed up at the football office, asking to play.

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“There was this big buzz,” recalls Julie Kennedy, president of the booster club. “The new coaching staff was making things very interesting.”

The Mariners weren’t as good defense. That game against Mary Star, the one with all the points? They lost, 53-46, setting a pattern for a 3-6 record. But three victories amounted to a big improvement and the quicker offense kept players happy.

“I wanted to get as much yardage on the books as possible,” Muno says. “That was my marketing phase.”

Once he got them hooked, he could be more demanding.

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Now, the off-season meant sweating in a dank weight room. There was a new behavior code — players adding “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” to their vocabulary. Anyone who arrived late or acted up had to push a large tire across the school’s quad.

“We still had fun,” says Muno, 45. “But I wanted to hold them accountable.”

The coach also worked through the spring. He got a parishioner to donate the synthetic turf that the defunct Avengers used for arena football games at Staples Center. Rolled out at the far end of the quad — complete with colorful logos for the Arena Football League and Carl’s Jr. — it sufficed on days when the team did not go to the park.

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One more change proved crucial: Muno hired a new defensive coordinator.

When the Mariners lighted up the scoreboard in the 2010 season opener against Animo Leadership High, they looked just as strong on the other side of the ball, winning 41-0.

“We had worked so hard,” says Holguin, now a senior. “We expected to be better.”

Not that everything went smoothly.

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There were losses to Christian of El Cajon and Brentwood. Against league rival Salesian, Partyka left the game with a concussion and the team fell apart. But the Mariners, who play home games at a nearby high school or Santa Monica College, finished strong.

“They progressed in so many ways,” says Rolando Aguirre, the coach at Bellarmine-Jefferson High in Burbank. “They really came around.”

They also caught a lucky break.

Late in the season, Salesian discovered an ineligible player on its roster, and had to forfeit all its victories. So when the Mariners swept past St. Anthony of Long Beach last week, 38-0, they won the league.

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With this new-found success, the booster club is ordering 75% more hamburgers and hotdogs for the snack bar. Holguin talks about getting respect from his opponents across the line.

“They used to be laughing when they played us,” he says. “Now the look is more scared.”

The receiver and his teammates insist they are not satisfied with an 8-2 record. They want more victories in the playoffs, starting Friday night with a first-round game against Chadwick High.

You could sense their joy as they practiced at Airport Park, hooting and hollering, moving quickly from one drill to the next.

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“When you’re winning,” Muno says, “everyone has a blast.”

Even after the clock struck 5:30 and the Mariners relinquished the field to that girls’ soccer team, they weren’t quite ready to quit.

The players hustled over to a patch of grass between picnic benches, doing some quick sit-ups before heading home.

david.wharton@latimes.com

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