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Column: FSW/Prime Ticket executive: High school sports coverage ‘is in our network’s DNA’

Alemany running back Floyd Chalk carries the ball during the Warriors’ victory over Sandy (Utah) Jordan on Friday.
Alemany running back Floyd Chalk carries the ball during the Warriors’ victory over Sandy (Utah) Jordan on Friday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

John Hefner, installed earlier this month as the executive producer of Fox Sports West and Prime Ticket, has a clear understanding of the importance of the regional sports network’s ongoing partnerships with keeping the Clippers, Angels, Kings and Ducks engaged and satisfied.

Pause to note that the Dodgers, Lakers, Sparks and Galaxy were once vital tenants there as well, forcing the creating of a second channel, but all have since taken their business elsewhere.

But focus for a moment on the 23rd season of the network’s high school football season, with a Mater Dei-Corona Centennial matchup Friday night in Santa Ana featuring the preseason No. 1- and No. 3-ranked teams in the state by MaxPreps.com, with Mater Dei top-ranked in the country.

Hefner’s connection to that package’s creation as a 30-year-old production manager when FSW2 (now Prime Ticket) launched in 1997, collaborating with Student Sports representatives Garry Paskwietz and Andy Bark, provides a perspective few others remaining at the network have in terms of the growth and durability of that package.

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“We probably didn’t know what we were getting into or the challenges we would have when we first started,” Hefner said from the downtown L.A. offices last week, having just left a run as Fox Sports’ vice president of regional production for the NBA. “But from the first game we did to where it’s grown, it’s one of the most unique things we do in this region, a labor of love that stands out as a community event. To see it from the start to now is really gratifying to me.”

That first game featured Alemany, with sophomore quarterback Casey Clausen, against running back Justin Fargas and Notre Dame of Sherman Oaks. There was immediate pushback by high school coaches who feared the network was profiting from the players, not recognizing the exposure it was giving them.

“There was an educational process for us, and them, about what it all meant,” said Hefner, noting a turning point came on Oct. 6, 2001, when No. 1 nationally ranked Long Beach Poly played host to No. 2 Concord De La Salle in a televised contest he helped arrange and was so important that a 2003 book captured it in “One Great Game: Two Teams, Two Dreams and the First Ever National Championship High School Football Game.”

That game also sparked ESPN’s interest in national high school games, including basketball contests later that year featuring LeBron James.

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Also note: ESPN has Mater Dei as part of its national high school football package this fall, slotted for a Sept. 27 appearance when it follows the Monarchs to Washington D.C. to face St. John’s.

Current technology advancements, which include the network’s ability to stream online four additional games on its Fox Sports Go/PrepZone platform, provide a stark contrast with the primitive production abilities at the start. Hefner notes that they could only accommodate airing games from a small number of CIF Southern Section school sites that had clearance to send microwave signals to the antennas at Mt. Wilson. Satellite feeds and IP streaming, as well as schools’ increasing ability to produce their own feature packages through their educational media classroom programs, have expanded the network’s collaborative process.

Consider that this is a package that has thrived so long that Carson Palmer and Maurice Jones-Drew competed in the Fox Sports West 2 Game of the Week or were part of the Prep Spotlight features, went on to heralded college careers, had long runs in the NFL and are now retired.

“Our high school football coverage is in our network’s DNA,” said FSN/Prime Ticket senior vice president and general manager Lindsay Amstutz. “Everyone has a connection to the high school experience as we have for more than 20 years, and it’s really something special.”

The high school football and basketball package been a fruitful training ground for talent like Hefner.

Aside from the fact that new Clippers TV play-by-play man Brian Seiman used to call high school games, the likes of Brad Zager, Micah King and Steve Dorfman were prep game producers. Zager, after producing Dodgers games for FSW2, has become executive producer/executive vice president and head of production and operations for all of Fox Sports. King is the Fox Sports West overall coordinating producer. Dorfman has been producing Kings games the last 11 seasons.

John Jackson, the primary game analyst since the package started, continues recovery from a stroke suffered last Christmas. Prime Ticket will have Greg Biggins work as the game analyst in the booth with Sam Farber and Chris Rix on the sidelines. Jackson plans to appear on air at halftime most Fridays, including the Mater Dei-Centennial opener at the Santa Ana Bowl where former colleagues such as Petros Papadakis, Chris McGee and Bill Macdonald have been invited to come on air and celebrate not only Jackson’s return but also the establishment of the Garry Paskwietz Player of the Game Award, which will pay tribute to the recruiting expert contributor who died earlier this year.

Another ‘Rocky’ Hollywood story

Former NFL running back Rocky Bleier.
Former NFL running back Rocky Bleier.
(ESPN)

Producer Jon Fish said he got a call about a month ago from ESPN execs to see if he could possibly speed up the editing process of his “SC Featured” documentary called “The Return,” based on former Pittsburgh Steelers running back and Army veteran Rocky Bleier’s return to Vietnam to visit the site of where he was injured and earned a Purple Heart.

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The network wanted to see if it could be entered into the L.A. Shorts International Film Festival last month. Fish obliged with a rough cut, without really knowing the ramifications.

Surprise: The festival not only requested a final version, but the 27-minute piece won Best Documentary.

Bigger surprise: That qualifies it to become eligible to be submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture of Arts and Sciences for best documentary short subject.

And by its airing Tuesday (ESPN2, 5 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.) in a slightly tighter version to fit into a half-hour TV window, it also gets on the radar of the Sports Emmy Awards.

“To be honest, we didn’t know (about the Oscar eligibility) but it just worked out as far as timing,” said Fish, who came out for the festival screening on opening night with some 800 others at the Regal L.A. Live but left before the award was announced.

“Candidly, it was very cool with the red carpet and everything. We were lucky to have it screened there. It’s all happening organically, which is the best way it could happen.

“But all that aside, it’s an amazing honor just to be able to tell Rocky’s story, and that’s all that matters to me.”

Fish had been in an open conversation with Bleier for about 10 years to see if he would be interested in going back to Vietnam, and Bleier agreed last year, joined by ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi and a small camera crew. Bleier visited the Hiep Duc Valley rice paddy where he was part of a “Charlie Company” platoon that was ambushed came on the 49th anniversary of his injury, and results in Bleier weeping over the emotional experience of remembering colleagues who were killed. Tuesday marks the event’s 50th anniversary, with Bleier expected to make various appearances on ESPN programming to relive the experience.


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