The offense, in the coach's words, was "mature." And when summer practice began, he welcomed a large number of lettermen whom he committed to the old wing-T.
But when El Rancho High School football Coach Don Peterson was quoted as saying he thought the Dons would "play with anyone" during the 1985 season, the comment raised more than a few eyebrows.
Although the team finished second in the Whitmont League a year ago, a preseason poll of the league's coaches picked the Dons to finish no better than third this year. A Times regional poll tabbed them fifth. Even midway through the season with one of the best records in its conference, the team failed to make the Eastern Conference top 10, published by the Southern Section CIF.
So much for polls. Nine wins and a league championship later, Peterson's prediction, and the wing-T, has been borne out. Ranked second in the conference, the Dons (9-1) entertain La Canada (6-4) at 7:30 p.m. Friday, as they enter the first round of the Southern Section's Eastern Conference playoffs in search of the school's third CIF title.
"I believed that," Peterson said of his early season prognostication. "But it doesn't surprise me (that El Rancho was overlooked by its opponents). We have always been a good defensive team, but we've had trouble moving the ball."
Not this season. Don running backs Robert Garcia (fullback), Francisco Barillas (wingback) and Adrian Ortega (halfback) gained 2,459 yards. After years of the traditional I-look, Peterson reached into history for the run-dominated wing-T offense because "it fit into our philosophy."
Change Proves Value
The switch proved fruitful on all levels. The sophomore team finished second and the freshmen won their division this year. Peterson plans to stick with the offensive set as long as it is successful.
And success is no stranger to El Rancho football. Under Peterson (67-36-3), the Dons have advanced to the playoffs in eight of the past 10 seasons. The school is steeped in football tradition, dating back to the mid-1960s under Coach Ernie Johnson and his CIF 4-A titles (1966 and a tie in 1968 with St. Paul).
El Rancho's domination of the five Long Beach high schools, as a member of the Moore League from 1969 to 1971, was a factor in its switch to the Pacific League in 1972. Often top-ranked and unbeaten, the Dons won all three Moore League titles during that period.
'We Beat Ourselves'
The Dons bring an eight-game winning streak into the playoffs. El Rancho's only loss was to Lakewood in its second game of the season.
"And we self-destructed in that game or we would be 10-0," Peterson said. "We beat ourselves."
That isn't likely to happen Friday night. Yet Peterson is concerned.
"They (the Southern Section office) didn't do us any favors," he said about meeting La Canada. "They look impressive."
Against all odds, so has El Rancho.
A rundown of the area's big games, which all begin at 7:30 p.m. Friday, follows:
Lakewood (5-4) at Bishop Amat (10-0)--Lakewood could have won a share of the Moore League title last Friday, but was upset by Wilson High. The loss placed the Lancers against the top seed in the Big Five Conference. Still, the past three playoff meetings of the schools have been decided by a touchdown or less. "We got the best of the bunch," said Lakewood Coach Gene Melvin of the Lancers' opponent. Lancer quarterback Rick Wildt threw for 11 touchdowns during the regular season.
St. Paul (7-3) vs. Poly (8-1) at Cerritos College--This game is so hot in prep circles that a site change from Wilson High to Cerritos College was necessary to hold the expected overflow crowd. Longtime St. Paul fans are hungry for a championship. First-year Coach Richard Ready has the Swordsmen, a perennial top-10 team in the 1960s and '70s, back into the playoffs for the first time in three years. St. Paul's losses came in the tough Angelus League and all three were decided by less than a TD. Both teams come off disheartening losses. Formerly top-ranked Poly was rocked by Millikan last week, 15-13, and enters as the No. 2 representative from the Moore League. St. Paul lost to Bishop Amat, 28-23. Ready suggests the game will be a test of "strength vs. strength."
Servite (8-2) at Millikan (5-4)--One of four Angelus League teams to make the playoffs, Servite is also one of three Angelus League teams to face the three Moore League representatives. First-year head Coach Dave Radford had a big chore this week in preparing the Rams for the Friars. Can Millikan come down off Cloud Nine after upsetting Poly last week? Quarterback Tim Rosenkranz of Servite has thrown for more than 2,000 yards this year. Millikan, led by the passing combination of Cliff Mosely (90-159-5, 1,639 yards, 14 TD) to end Ed Robinson (55-1,122 yards, 9 TD) averaged 33 points a game against its Moore League opponents.