Be it from school to school or position to position, Bret Mersola is a traveling man.
During the last two years, the Saddleback College sophomore has proven as elusive to universities as he has to defensive backs.
He has, however, stayed at Saddleback long enough to challenge the state single-season and career reception records.
Mersola, who has 79 receptions, needs six tonight to break the single-season state record of 84 set by Diablo Valley's Tom Schulting last year. Saddleback (4-4, 4-5) plays Rancho Santiago (5-3, 6-3) in the season finale for both schools in a Mission Conference game starting at 7:30 on Saddleback College Field.
Mersola has 131 catches in two seasons and needs eight to break the career record of 138 set by Dave Oliver of Grossmont in 1973-74.
But that's just the where-have-you-been-lately on Mersola, who has had fewer roots than a nomad during the past two years.
Mersola, 20, graduated from Burbank's John Burroughs High School in 1984 and was The Times' Player of the Year there as a running back. He went to the University of Colorado, only to find the Buffaloes changed to a wishbone offense.
"It didn't look like the offense or the school for me," Mersola said.
After leaving Colorado, Mersola decided to attend Saddleback to play for Coach Ken Swearingen. Mersola's father, Carl, had been an assistant coach under Swearingen at El Camino from 1962 to 1975. Carl Mersola no longer coaches, but still teaches at El Camino.
Mersola started the 1985 season at Saddleback as a running back but switched to wide receiver after five games. That was a minor maneuver compared to the switch he made during that summer.
Early in the summer, Mersola was contacted by the University of Florida, and went to the Gainesville campus to look it over.
"Florida lost a receiver and was looking for one who was eligible this year," Mersola said. "I went to visit and two weeks later I was moving there. But they were rotating guys and I just decided that I would not get enough playing time to improve.
"Plus, I knew I had another year here."
Mersola didn't officially enroll at Florida and returned to Saddleback in late August with only a blue and orange Gators hat as evidence of his month's absence.
Upon returning, Mersola wanted to work on refining his skills.
He had struggled as a freshman making the transition to receiver. He didn't know how to run pass routes, but as the season progressed he improved.
By the end of the 1985 season, he had become an important part of the Gauchos' offense and led the team in receptions with 52.
"He was catching plenty of passes for us as a running back," Swearingen said. "It's his natural postion if he wants to continue to play football. So the change wasn't that severe for him."
When Saddleback defeated Fullerton, 32-13, in the PONY Bowl to win a co-national championship with Snow College, Utah, Mersola had 5 catches for 78 yards. He was voted the offensive player of the game.
This year, Mersola has really settled in as a receiver and has been confusing defenses from the beginning of the season. He has tied the school record of 11 catches in a game twice, first against Grossmont, then against San Diego Mesa.
Mersola also tied the record for most touchdown catches in a game when he had three against Southwestern.
"He just gets open," quarterback Pat Hegarty said. "Last year he didn't always, but he was new to the position. Now, almost every time I look up, he seems to be open."
Mersola has 1,651 yards in his career, 16 behind John Marshall's school record of 1,667 set in 1981-82.
"He just has really great hands," Swearingen said. "That and his speed are his best skills. His hands are really soft and that helps because Pat throws a hard ball that's difficult to catch at times."
Now, with one game left in his season, Mersola is about to be on the move again. Only this time, he is not sure of the school.
"I'm keeping my options open and haven't made up my mind yet where I'll go next."
In other Mission Conference games:
Citrus (2-6, 2-7) vs. Orange Coast (5-3, 5-4) in LeBard Stadium, 7:30--The Pirates try to finish Bill Workman's first season on a winning note. OCC has won two straight games thanks mostly to an improved defense. The Pirates are still last against the pass, giving up an average of 246.1 yards a game. But the rushing defense ranks fourth in the conference, giving up an average of 108.6 yards a game. Citrus has lost two straight but has the conference's second-best rusher in sophomore Paul Hewitt. He has rushed for 1,114 yards this season and scored eight touchdowns.
In the South Coast Conference:
Fullerton (4-2, 5-4) vs. Pasadena City (4-2, 5-4) on Horrell Field, 7:30--The loser will fall out of a tie for second and a possible chance at a tie for the conference title if Mt. San Antonio defeats Cerritos. Fullerton has the second-best passing offense behind Compton. The Lancers are first in rushing, so there should be plenty offense. Fullerton quarterback Richard Williams has completed 164 of 287 passes for 2,082 yards and 14 touchdowns. A RECORD SEASON
Opponent No. Yds TD El Camino 9 95 0 Grossmont *11 166 1 Orange Coast 7 130 2 Riverside 10 105 0 SD Mesa *11 89 0 Southwestern 10 187 *3 SD City 9 102 2 Palomar 4 54 0 Citrus 8 70 1 Total 79 998 9
* ties record