The Palisades, University and Venice high school football teams have each gone from being doormats to closely knit squads knocking on the door of league championships.
None of the three had particularly good seasons last year. Palisades, under now retired Coach Merritt Stanfield, had a 1-8 record and picked up its only victory in the final game of the season. Venice was 3-6 last year.
University had a Hyde-and-Jekyll 1984 season, losing its first four games, three of them by shutouts, and then winning five in a row before falling to Huntington Park, 14-13, in the playoffs.
This year Palisades, under new Coach Jack Epstein, and University each got off to horribly familiar 0-3 beginnings. Venice was not much better. After beating Hamilton, 7-0, to open the season, Venice was shut out by Moorpark, 14-0, the following week.
Epstein, University Coach Joe Sedia and Venice Coach Al Dellinger surely didn't get together with their teams at the same time and shout, "It's time for a change." But something good happened to each team--and just about at the same time.
Palisades blew an 18-0 lead in its opener and lost to Garfield, 19-18, and then the Dolphins looked unimpressive in losing to Santa Monica, 34-6, and to San Pedro, 27-6. But the Dolphins have since gone from 0-3 to 3-3, defeating Van Nuys, 20-6, in another non-league game, and then beating Crosstown League foes Manual Arts, 23-12, and winless Jordan, 30-14, last week.
If Epstein's Dolphins keep it up they could be playing for the Crosstown championship when they meet powerful and unbeaten Fairfax on Nov. 15 on the Dolphins' home field. Palisades may be 3-3 overall but is 2-0 in league.
Roosevelt handed University its first defeat, 23-14, and Fairfax routed the Warriors, 57-12, in their second game. But Sedia's team played Reseda tough before losing, 16-13, in a Pac 8 League opener.
Since then the Warriors have lived up to their nickname and have defeated three league teams in a row. They downed Sylmar, 14-6, and then routed Grant, 47-0, and North Hollywood, 33-6, last week. They are 3-3 overall but a warlike 3-1 in conference play.
After its 1-1 start, Venice has won four Pac 8 League games. The Gondoliers have defeated Sylmar, 14-6; Westchester, 10-8; Poly, 27-9, and Reseda, 15-12. Venice is 5-1 overall, 4-0 in the Pac 8.
What happened to make winners out of losers?
Sedia said, "We changed a couple of things in regard to personnel. The kids are also learning to play defense better, and our offensive line is beginning to come together. The idea is for them (offensive linemen) to get better and improve their techniques."
The University coach also said that running back William Harris, quarterback Jonn Moomaw and Paul Richardson, who is a wide receiver and plays linebacker and strong safety on defense, have turned in "real good games" of late. For the season, Harris has 75 carries for 465 yards and eight touchdowns, Moomaw has completed 52 of 103 passes for 822 yards and seven touchdowns, and Richardson has 13 catches for 257 yards and four touchdowns.
In the case of Palisades, the disastrous start was, in part, a result of turnabout that produced poor play. Terry Smith, last year's quarterback (and a defensive back) was shifted to wide receiver, and Mark Thau, a junior who played wide receiver on the B team last season, started the year at quarterback.
Thau has shown his inexperience, completing only about a third of his passes and throwing 10 interceptions. But Coach Epstein said that Thau "gets better every game. He makes a mistake once, and he probably doesn't do it again." In last week's win over Jordan, Thau was not intercepted.
Epstein said that Smith "is catching the ball well and blocking well and has also thrown two touchdown passes"
At the beginning of the year, Epstein was complaining about his kicking game. But John Britton, the school soccer coach, recommended that Epstein try one of his kickers, Garrard Elliott, who also plays volleyball. Since Elliott took over the kicking chores, he has been averaging 35 yards a punt and has kicked four field goals.
Epstein, who coached football at Hamilton High before going on to West Los Angeles College and Narbonne High, said that "it takes time to get to know these kids." He also said he has shifted some of his linemen around, another reason for the turnaround.
Dellinger, the Venice coach, could not be reached for comment. But a reporter who has seen two of the team's games ventures the opinion that the Gondoliers, a team mostly of juniors, has matured with every game.
The Venice defense seemed to be porous at first against Sylmar and Reseda, giving up easy yardage to opposing runners. But as each game progressed, the Venice defense managed to stop up the holes.