This was supposed to be the year Westminster High School swept through the Sunset League and rolled into the Big Five Conference playoffs as the No. 1-seeded team.
The Lions had 14 starters returning, including six who earned either all-league, all-Southern Section or all-Orange County honors. The offensive line averaged 233 pounds. The defense featured three excellent linebackers in Ray Smith, Mark Smith and Todd Weaver.
The Orange County Sportswriters' Assn. made the Lions No. 1 in their preseason poll. USA Today ranked them 17th in the nation.
But Westminster never lived up to their preseason rankings. The Lions were tied by Valencia in their first game, 14-14, and ended up finishing a distant third in the Sunset League with an overall record of 5-4-1.
So, instead of being No. 1, the Lions are playing No. 1-seeded Bishop Amat (10-0) at 7:30 tonight on Kiefer Field in La Puente in the first round of the Big Five playoffs.
The Lions are used to situations such as this. Last year, they went into the playoffs as a third-place team with a 6-4 record and drew No. 1-seeded Riverside Poly.
The Lions upset Riverside Poly, 14-2, to end the Bears' 23-game winning streak and went on to become the surprise team of the playoffs by reaching the semifinals.
"The win over Riverside Poly probably helped to establish our program as the No. 1 team for this season," said Westminster co-coach Jack Bowman. "But the No. 1 ranking became a burden. We couldn't handle it.
"I'd like to be ranked No. 1. I'd like to be seeded No. 1. I prefer to be No. 1. But I also like being somewhat of an unknown quantity in the playoffs. I like having a hungry team."
Bowman also will have a healthy team for the first time this season. Running back Corey Dickson, tackle Gary Lewellyn and defensive end Mike Cover, who have all missed games because of injuries, are back.
"I don't think I've had a defensive starter who hasn't been hurt this year," Bowman said. "I even had a player miss a game because of a skin infection."
Westminster will need all the defensive help it can get in trying to contain Bishop Amat running back Eric Bieniemy, who leads the Southern Section in scoring with 28 touchdowns and has rushed for 1,738 yards.
Bieniemy has rushed for 100 or more yards in every game with the exception of the Lancers' victory over St. Francis, which held the three-year starter to 87 yards.
"He's the most explosive runner I've seen since Kerwin Bell," Bowman said. "There's no way you can shut out Bishop Amat. We're going to have to put some points on the board if we hope to win."
Riverside Poly Coach Mike Churchill, who watched the Lions eliminate his team in the playoffs last year, is picking Bishop Amat.
"I'd be very surprised if Westminster won," Churchill said. "Westminster's linebackers are very physical, but Westminster doesn't have the speed to contain Bieniemy. You can't win the Big Five without speed."
In other Big Five Conference games:
Edison (8-2) vs. Crespi (9-1) at Birmingham HS--Crespi is a high-scoring team that has averaged 297 yards rushing per game and outscored its opponents, 343-75. Sophomore tailback Russell White averages 12.7 yards per carry. Linebacker Sean Howard leads the defense that has allowed only 391 yards rushing in 10 games.
Edison, which eliminated Crespi in the first round of the 1982 playoffs in the schools' only previous meeting, is led by junior fullback Kaleaph Carter, who has gained 1,015 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. Charger Coach Dave White said sophomore quarterback Greg Angelovic would play, but senior Mike Henderson will start.
Servite (7-3) at Fontana (9-1)--There's a new wrinkle in the Steelers' traditionally run-oriented offense this year. Fontana is passing with Coach Dick Bruich's son, Kurt, making 36 receptions for 513 yards and 3 touchdowns. Running back Derrick Malone has rushed for 1,014 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Servite's once-proud defense allowed an average of 25 points per game in the Angelus League and recorded only one shutout this season. Wide receiver Nick-John Haiduc was named the league's Offensive Player of the Year after catching 40 passes for 889 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Loyola (8-2) vs. Marina (5-5) at Westminster HS--Marina's tale of two seasons may end if running back Sean Magula is unable to play. Magula reinjured his ankle last week against Fountain Valley and is listed as doubtful. The Vikings are 5-0 with the senior in the lineup and 0-5 without him.
Loyola, which finished third in the Del Rey League, is the toughest third-place team in the playoffs. Loyola has outscored opponents, 235-81. The Cubs feature quarterback George Paton, who has passed for 1,007 yards and rushed for 280. The defense, led by tackle David Matter (6-3, 218 pounds), has four shutouts.