The football teams of the small schools of Orange County seem to have two things in common this season: 1) good overall improvement, and 2) great out-of-county competition.
Unfortunately for the Orange County schools, the latter far outweighs the former.
Three of the four--Orange Lutheran, Southern California Christian and Whittier Christian--are members of the Olympic League, considered the strongest in the Southern Section's Inland Conference.
Leading the league is defending champion Valley Christian of Cerritos, which not only outscored the Orange County threesome, 110-21, last season, but also finished with a 13-1 overall record and the conference championship.
Valley Christian returns two of its key players: Running back Bryan Templeman and quarterback Lance Havel. Without hesitation, all the league coaches chose Valley Christian as this season's favorite--in both league and conference play.
But back to the Orange County teams. All three say second place may be wide open since Ontario Christian, last year's No. 2 finisher, may have lost too many top players to graduation and injuries.
Outside the Olympic League, Capistrano Valley Christian stands on its own.
The Eagles are a free-lance team--a team without a league. They are responsible for devising their own schedule, finding nine or 10 opponents willing to play a team without league recognition. Often, that means playing some very weak teams.
So where does Capistrano Valley Christian's great out-of-county competition come from? The Southern Section office, for it decides which free-lance teams should receive a wild-card invitation to the conference playoffs.
CAPISTRANO VALLEY CHRISTIAN 8-2 (No league play)
Eagle Coach Mickey Bodnar is in his second season and has eight starters returning from the most successful independent team in the Southern Section.
In 10 games, Capistrano Valley Christian outscored its opponents by a whopping 217-63.
So why no wild-card invitation to the playoffs?
"We were pretty surprised," Bodnar said. "We figured they (Southern Section office) would at least consider us."
However, each of the eight teams the Eagles defeated had a losing record at season's end.
This season, Capistrano Valley Christian will play a slightly tougher nine-game schedule.
The Eagles will rely on the strong kicking game of senior Chris Phillips, who averaged 40.2 yards in 29 punts last season.
Senior quarterback Tye Carney passed for more than 1,000 yards as a sophomore on the junior varsity team but played only three times as varsity backup last season.
Phillips and Carney also combined for 11 interceptions in the secondary.
Brian Siemon rushed for 1,022 yards as a sophomore on the junior varsity team and managed about four yards per carry as backup tailback last season.
The Eagles' weakness? Both lines are light, averaging about 170 pounds, and the roster consists of only 20 players.
"We probably have to go 8-1 or 9-0 to get in (the playoffs) this year," Bodnar said. "We have a chance, but it'll take everyone coming together at the right times."
ORANGE LUTHERAN 1-4, 3-7 (Fifth in league)
The Lancers hope to rectify their nightmares of 1986--a 65-27 loss to rival Brethren, for example--with an offensive twist.
Junior Jason Neben, who rushed for 1,059 yards and 11 touchdowns as the tailback last season, will take over as quarterback this year.
Why would Lancer Coach Bob Dowding trade Neben's talented feet for his inexperienced arm? Well, Orange Lutheran's I-formation attack of 1986 resulted in a total of 149 yards passing with 1 touchdown and 7 interceptions.
Coach Bob Dowding has installed a veer option attack, led by Neben and assisted by senior running back Gaylord Greene.
A three-year starter in basketball, Greene played football for the first time last year. His debut was impressive as he rushed for 143 yards in 25 carries, caught 7 passes for 91 yards, scored 2 touchdowns and returned 7 kickoffs for an average of 29.8 yards each.
Orange Lutheran returns 13 starters, 4 of them linemen.
Other key personnel: Defensive tackle Ward Lookabaugh, linebacker Todd Lorenz, tackle Kevin White and defensive end/tight end Tim McCann.
Top newcomers: Defensive back/wide receiver Oren Beske, quarterback/defensive back Daren Keaney, linebacker/wide receiver Jason Dahl and tight end Kelly Burch.
CALIFORNIA CHRISTIAN 0-5, 3-7 (Sixth in league)
With an enrollment of 275, Southern California Christian is the smallest of the small schools. But that's only in enrollment.
Among the 25 varsity players, 14 are returning starters, with six returning to the biggest line in the league.
Three-year all-league tackles Edmund DeAvila (6-4, 260) and Christian Lunney (6-4, 250) will lead the Flames' offensive and defensive lines.
When two-year starting quarterback Shawn Crawford moved to San Clemente in the spring, Coach Dave DeWoody had no choice but to bring junior quarterback Wade Bowe up from the junior varsity.