If you thought the 1986 Southern Section football season was a White wash, wait until this year.
Crespi High School of Encino, the defending Big Five Conference champion, has 9 of 11 starters on offense coming back, including junior running back Russell White, the 1986 Cal-Hi state player of the year. The most dominant player in Southern California returns after rushing for 2,339 yards and 31 touchdowns, both the seventh-best single-season marks in the Southern Section, while averaging just 13.9 carries a game. That's 12.1 yards per attempt.
This year, White will probably get the ball up to 25 times a game, which means anything is possible. He missed Ryan Knight's Southern Section single-season record of 2,620 yards by 281 and Mickey Cureton's single-season touchdown mark of 36 by 5.
"Our most-improved player is Russell White, believe it or not," Celts Coach Bill Redell said. "He's bigger (6 foot 1 inch, 185 pounds), faster and much more confident with what he's doing under our offense, which is a little more complicated than some other teams. Of course, it's not so complicated when you just give the ball to him."
The tricky part then belongs to the defense.
With White leading the way, Crespi is The Times' preseason No. 1 selection as the 73rd season begins in earnest Thursday, and even the Celts aren't backing away from the billing. After some lean years, they're enjoying these times to the fullest.
"I think we have a better team than last year, first-team against first-team," Redell said.
The Times' preseason top 15:
1986 Record: 13-1
Coach: Bill Redell
League: Del Rey
Strengths: The offensive backfield--surprise, surprise--which returns QB Rob O'Byrne and RBs White, the only sophomore to ever be named the major-division player of the year in the Southern Section, and J.J. Lasley. "It sounds cocky, but I can't fathom a high school having a better backfield than we have," Redell said. Both starting WRs, Dave Lefner and Eric Kieling, also are back, as is C Kyle Cummings, RG Darin Osti and RT Kevin Yates. All-Southern Section TE John Carpenter has graduated, but Redell claims his replacement, Quinn Fauria, is better. LBs Fauria, Lasley, Brett Borkgern and Chad Santander. FS Ronny Redell, unless he replaces O'Byrne at quarterback, in which case O'Byrne would move into the secondary. Coaching.
Weaknesses: Depth, so avoiding injuries will be important. A pair of untested defensive ends in a 3-4 alignment.
Outlook: Unlike teams the past couple of seasons, Crespi does not look upon the preseason billing of being No. 1 like a scarlet number. Beyond the Southern Section, the Celts are the top-ranked team in the nation according to the National Prep Poll and second-ranked by USA Today. "I'm not sure if we're No. 1 in the country," Redell said, "but it will take an excellent team to beat us." Opens with back-to-back road games, at Redlands and at Palmdale.
1986 Record: 11-2
Coach: Dick Bruich
League: Citrus Belt
Strengths: Experience, with 9 of 11 starters back on offense from a team that reached the Big Five semifinals and 20 seniors starting overall. T Chris Ybarra (6-4, 240). FB Derrick Malone, who rushed for 1,284 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. K Joe Bernal and all-league P Chris Hancock. Kurt Bruich, who had 48 receptions as WR and 6 interceptions as a DB and also handles punt returns and holds for field goals. LB, with Mike Sylvester and Joey Mariani.
Weaknesses: Size. Depth.
Outlook: Expectations are high in Fontana for the Steelers, as Dick Bruich knows all too well. "No matter what we do, it'll be wrong," he said. "Everybody expects a lot from us. Last year, we could do no wrong because we weren't supposed to be so good. . . . If we win by 50 points, we're dumb. If we don't win by 50, we're even dumber. . . . This year, you must produce." Can being this good be that bad? "You don't know Fontana," he said.
1986 Record: 10-3
Coach: Tom Hoak
League: Citrus Belt
Strengths: All-Big Five LB/TE Michael Smalls (6-4, 215), one of the top prospects in the state. The entire offensive backfield returns, including RBs Dennis Collier (1,000 yards last season) and Daryl McChristian (850), and QB Steve Hoak, who started the final four games of the year. WRs Maurice Wilson and Keith Horn. In other words, the skill positions. Three three-year starters at LB--Smalls, all-league pick Hoak and Frank Sullivan. A coaching staff that has been together in its entirety for 10 years as players and/or coaches.
Weaknesses: No depth, including those skill positions. "If we get some injuries, we'll drop fast," Hoak said.