If a survey were taken to determine which Valley-area school's students drove the fanciest cars, earned the best grades, had the wealthiest parents and cleanest fingernails, Harvard School would probably be near the top of the list.
Harvard is an all-boys prep school located on a beautifully landscaped 23-acre site in the foothills of Studio City. The land used to be the home of the Hollywood Country Club. Now it's the country club of Valley-area high schools.
The campus is quiet and neat. Many of the faculty studied at universities such as Harvard and Yale, and the academic and indoor athletic facilities are second to none. Sound good? The tuition is $5,600 a year.
The tuition and academic environment is enough to discourage all but the smartest and richest. Dumb jocks are not allowed.
"When people think of us in sports, they think of terrible athletes, of wimps," said Cory Thabit, quarterback of the Harvard football team.
But Harvard football players do not have servants run their laps for them, nor do they have their uniforms dry cleaned after every practice.
About the only difference between football players from Harvard and those from most other Valley-area high schools is that the ones at Harvard are still playing.
Of the 45 area high schools that suited up football teams in September, only seven are still competing in the playoffs. Harvard is one of them. The Saracens play host to Notre Dame of Riverside in the Desert-Mountain Conference semifinals tonight at Valley College.
Harvard's longevity is surprising for three reasons:
The Saracens had been to the playoffs only once in the previous 11 years.
Harvard had only six seniors back from last season's 4-6 team.
Athletics is not important to the Harvard administration.
"The whole interest here is academics first," said football Coach Gary Thran. "The main focus for everyone here is to make sure these kids are ready for college. We just try to give them the best athletic situation we can without losing sight of the school's primary goal. The kids participate in athletics for the fun of it."
They are having even more fun since the team started winning.
Harvard started the season with three losses, then upset highly regarded Agoura before losing again the following week.
"We had a very difficult schedule starting off," Thran said. "We also had an extremely young team. It took four or five games for some of these young kids to get their feet on the ground. We've been able to move more consistently during the last part of the season because we had some experience and because we've had fewer injuries."
Thabit was out for most of the first half of the season with an assortment of injuries.
He missed half of the season opener against Alemany with a bruised sternum. The following week, against Beverly Hills, he suffered a hairline ankle fracture. He missed Harvard's next game, but returned to play a key role in the Saracens' 27-13 victory over Agoura, the defending Desert-Mountain Conference champion.
Thabit broke three vertebrae in his back in the first quarter of Harvard's game against St. Genevieve the following week. Mike Patterson stepped in as Thabit missed the next three games before returning to action against Miraleste five weeks ago. Harvard won its last four games with Thabit guiding the offense at quarterback and leading the team in tackles as a linebacker on defense. The Saracens enter tonight's game with a 7-5 record.
"In a way, my injuries were almost good for the team," Thabit said. "It made us work extra hard on our running game. While I was out it got better and better. Now we can run and pass with equal effectiveness."
Although his team probably has enough brains to learn the run-and-shoot offense and the Dallas Cowboys' flex defense in a week, Thran's philosophy on offense is surprisingly simple.
The Saracens line up and simply try to run over their opponent. It's smash-mouth football at its very best.
Said Thran: "My philosophy as a coach is, the easier the better. I don't like to get fancy. It's real easy to teach these kids. They generally have a great learning capacity. But they're also just kids. They forget and make mistakes just like any other kid. The more simple the system, the fewer the mistakes."
Harvard is able to overrun its opponents because of a big offensive line anchored by Mike Browne, a 6-4, 230-pound tackle. Peter Andersons, a 6-2, 210-pound junior, is the other tackle, Chester Koh (5-10, 190) and Eric Parslow (5-10, 180) are the guards and David Reiner, a 6-6, 240-pound junior, is the center.
Bob Dworkoski, head of Harvard's upper school, said that the football players also overrun the illusion that good athletes can't be smart.
"They destroy the myths of the dumb jock," Dworkoski said. "SAT test results recently came in and a couple of our football players had scores in the 600 and 700," Dworkoski said. The national average is near 500.