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With 19 returning starters, Harbor City Narbonne kicks off long-planned journey

For months, if not years, Manuel Douglas has been plotting this journey he's about to take his football team on.

The Harbor City Narbonne coach remembers the scene from his school weight room in December 2012, after the Gauchos lost a thriller to Corona Centennial, 41-34, in a regional bowl game at Cerritos College. It was the first and only loss for his team after 14 consecutive victories.

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"We say goodbye to the seniors one more time," he recalled. "They hand-shaked and there were some tears. They leave and I held this group — the seniors to be that were ninth graders — and I said, 'Look around fellows, because three years from now, some of you won't be in this room. Some will be other places, but this group can be just as special as the group that just walked out that door.'"

Even after winning last year's City Section Division I championship, the planning had begun for the season ahead, with the knowledge that 19 starters would be back.

"In all honesty, we've been preparing since we got off the bus after winning last year's championship," Douglas said.

It all begins Thursday night, when Narbonne opens its season against Long Beach Poly at home.

Expectations are high. Narbonne's skill-position players gave a hint of how good they might be when the Gauchos won the Edison summer passing tournament. But the Gauchos also have depth and size on the offensive and defensive lines. And this year's group of linebackers is reminiscent of the 2012 defensive unit that recorded four shutouts, including the 56-0 victory over Long Beach Poly.

But what looks good on paper doesn't guarantee anything. All the preseason hype for teams and players is finally done. Now it's time to base everything on performance instead of potential; results instead of predictions.

"The truth is it's going to come down to how this team performs," Douglas said.

Long Beach Poly, a 19-time Southern Section football champion that won its opener in Arizona last week, is the perfect team for the Gauchos to learn where they stand.

Bring sleeping bags

The best game of 2014 might have been the Pac-5 playoff opener between Corona Centennial and Gardena Serra. There were 15 lead changes before Centennial prevailed, 68-64.

The two teams are set to play again at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Oceanside High as part of the Honor Bowl.

"Bring your pillows. Get comfortable. It's going to be a long one," Serra Coach Scott Altenberg said. "We'll serve breakfast at the end of the game."

People should have sympathy for the sportswriters entrusted with keeping statistics, since both teams are no-huddle and don't like taking any rest between plays.

Serra enters at a disadvantage because its outstanding Arizona-bound quarterback, Khalil Tate, cannot play after being ejected from the team's season-opening win last week when he lost his cool over a late hit.

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Poly-Narbonne and Serra-Centennial are two of five games this week matching top 25 teams. The others are Orange Lutheran at Encino Crespi, Rancho Cucamonga at Norco and Tesoro vs. Santa Ana Mater Dei at Santa Ana Stadium.

Follow Eric Sondheimer on Twitter @LATSondheimer

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