Whenever the Costa Mesa High football team takes the field in 2010, it will remember the player who would give anything to be there.
Carlos Vazquez was set up for a big senior year at linebacker until he was diagnosed with leukemia in June. The player who Coach Jeremy Osso said was easily the toughest player on the team still is, but now the tenacious hitter has to be on the sideline.
Vazquez will also be on the Mustangs' helmets, as the team will wear decals with his No. 28.
It's been an emotional off-season for the team, which opens its regular-season Thursday against Buena Park at Jim Scott Stadium.
"It's just made the year more intense," said senior running back/safety Julian Marquez. "We have to win. He just said he would die to play with us, and we're going to show him that we'll die to play for him."
The Mustangs have already been putting in extra work on the practice field. They've been doing three-a-days instead of two-a-days, as Osso said they dedicated an extra practice each week to special teams improvement. He hopes it will improve his team's chances of making the playoffs for the fourth straight year.
The past two years it's come down to Costa Mesa against Laguna Beach in the last regular-season game for the Orange Coast League title. The Mustangs won the game in 2008 and lost it last year, but this year, the Battle for the Bell against cross-town rival Estancia closes out the regular season.
Osso said he still considers defending champion Laguna Beach the favorite in league, as the Breakers return the league MVP in receiver Chris Paul as well as talented quarterback Austin Paxson.
"Without a doubt, any time you have an athlete like Chris Paul returning," Osso said. "Chris Paul and Austin Paxson, they've hooked up for what, probably 30 or 40 touchdowns [actually 27] over the last two years? By far they're the team to beat, and I think Estancia is much-improved."
The Mustangs return just two starters on offense in senior fullback Tyler Sheffner, who was the leading rusher a year ago, and 6-foot-8 senior right tackle Andrew Albers, who has gained interest from colleges like USC, UCLA and Notre Dame. Osso said Albers, who did not give up a sack last season, will move over from left tackle to protect the blindside of new starting quarterback Nathan Alvis, who's a left-hander.
Sheffner is currently sidelined with an ulcer.
Mustangs graduate Travis Whitlock, now playing at Orange Coast College, was the league's Lineman of the Year in 2009. Albers, Costa Mesa's only returning first-team all-league player, has a great chance of bringing home the same honor this year.
Defense is where the team brings back five starters, tools for new defensive coordinator Wally Grant to use as the Mustangs adapt a flex defense similar to the "Desert Swarm" defense the University of Arizona made famous in the 1990s. Grant, a Mesa alumnus, was previously the defensive coordinator at Tustin High.
"We're no longer running a 30-stack defense, with three linemen and three linebackers stuck behind them," Osso said. "We'll be more aggressive this year with what we do."
Top defensive returners include Marquez, senior cornerback Nick Guzowski, senior defensive end/linebacker Tyler Biggs and senior linebacker Ryan Barnett.
"It's been tough," Biggs said. "This is our first year doing three-a-days. We usually do two-a-days for two weeks, but this year we've done three-a-days for three weeks … Everyone has really stepped it up. Our defense looks really good."
The Mustangs also brought in two more football alumni to the coaching staff, the Krikorian brothers. Dan, the defensive backs coach, is also an assistant basketball coach at the school. Tony Krikorian, who just finished his career playing receiver at Willamette University, will coach the Mustangs' wideouts as well.
Estancia's players said they were confident the Eagles could win the Battle for the Bell, since they won it at the freshman level three years ago. Marquez said not so fast.
"They had a lot of guys who had played Pop Warner," he said. "We had probably two of our guys from Mesa who had played Pop Warner. We've had a lot of growth from freshman year to senior year. A lot has changed."
But Osso, the 1996 Estancia graduate, stressed not just the game against his alma mater but also winning league for the third time in four years.
"[The Battle for the Bell] will definitely have playoff implications, for sure," Osso said. "Anybody in our league can win on any given night. I think we're all pretty evenly matched."