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Recruiters Catch West Covina Defensive Star Off Guard

November 06, 1986|MITCH POLIN | Times Staff Writer

It is not as if Tom Lassalette didn't deserve to be noticed by college recruiters after his junior year at West Covina High.

Lassalette, the only junior starter on a talent-rich Spartan football team (7-3), had an impressive year as a defensive end and was named to the All-Sierra League team.

But even the 17-year-old Lassalette admits he was taken aback by the attention he received before the start of this season.

He was named to super scout Max Emfinger's National High School Football Recruiting Service preseason team. Then it was the Street & Smith magazine All-American squad, followed by the Herald-Examiner's Super 11.

Not to mention the comments of Fallbrook-based Dick Lascola of the Scouting Evaluation Assn., who called him one of the top 12 defensive prospects in the nation.

'Really Surprised Me'

"It really surprised me," Lassalette said. "I thought I was just another player. I didn't think I did anything to stand out over anyone. I was looking more at the team and trying to help us win."

At 6-4 and 235 pounds, Lassalette is not just another player. Ask his coach, Tim Brancheau.

"He's an outstanding athlete, a good student, he has a good home-life and he's a good person," Brancheau said. "He has all the important characteristics to sustain greatness. The ordinary high school football player just doesn't have it."

Lassalette, an outstanding first baseman who batted .438 for the Spartans last year, also plays tight end. But it is his play at defensive end that has caught the eye of most college scouts, who have made him one of the most heavily recruited players in Southern California.

"I think his physical strength and size are two of his biggest pluses, along with his intellect," Brancheau said. "He's very smart and he knows where to be at the right time. Technically, he's a very sound player."

Surprised to Be Playing

Lassalette received only a sprinkling of letters from recruiters as a junior, but that was understandable. As the only junior starter, he was happy just to be playing.

"Before my junior year, I didn't even think I was going to play. I just gave it my best shot, kept working at it and got the opportunity. I couldn't afford to slack off at practice because there was always somebody waiting to take my spot."

"He started at defensive end as a junior, and that's unusual for our program because we use mostly seniors," Brancheau said. "He was the only junior to play a down for us last year."

But last summer the recruiting letters began to pile up and the phone calls poured in.

"Half of them I just look at and put back in the stack," he said. "I got so many, I've lost count.

"It was a distraction at first because people (scouts) would say things to you when you were out at practice. But I have tried to put it all out of my mind."

Easier said than done.

Taunted by Opponents

Lassalette says opponents have tried to distract him with taunts.

"I don't think anyone really means it when they say it," Lassalette said. "It annoys you when your opponent says things to you during a game, but I've learned to live with it. The first time someone said something it got me mad, but since then I just say 'who cares' and ignore them."

He has also learned to deal with being double-teamed by offensive linemen. "I don't really worry about it anymore. I just go out and play."

With all of the attention, you might expect him to have a swelled head.

Hardly the case. Lassalette is quick to divert the attention to teammates, coaches and family.

"You don't want to push it too much," he said. "You can't walk out on the field and act like you're God. I want to play more for the team than I do for myself.

"We don't have any quitters on this team. So I don't think I have to be any more of a leader than anyone else. I just have to do my job."

'He's a Leader'

Maybe, but Brancheau said the quiet, easygoing lineman is a model for his teammates.

"He's a leader but he's not a rah-rah type," Brancheau said. "He's not the outgoing type of leader but the guys really look up to him. He leads by example."

Brancheau said a big factor in Lassalette's success is his family, which has a strong athletic background. Lassalette's father, Mike, is athletic director at Edgewood High in West Covina and a former football player at Cal Poly Pomona. Tom's older brother, John, is an offensive lineman at UC Santa Barbara and starred as a prep for the Spartans.

"He comes from a very disciplined home," Brancheau said. "His father is an athletic director and a good coach and his brother played here."

If Lassalette has a weakness, it may be lack of speed. He runs the 40-yard dash in about 4.8 seconds--not the fastest for a defensive end or linebacker, but Brancheau says Lassalette's average speed is offset by other skills.

Quick off Snap

"Speed is all relative," he said. "For a lineman, the first 10 yards are most important and he has great reactions off the ball. When the ball is snapped he's pretty quick."

Lassalette also realizes he will have to improve his strength.

"I can't really get motivated for lifting weights as much as I should," he said. "After the season, I'll try to lift a little more."

Added Brancheau: "He's strong already without doing much work at it. God only knows how strong he'll be if he works at it.

"Don't forget, he's just a young boy. His speed, intensity and strength are all things that will come in time."

That's what college recruiters are banking on.

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