VISTA — The place was a mess.
Shoulder pads, helmets, chin straps, sweaty jerseys and paper cups were seemingly everywhere. To make matters worse, players were dumping their gear on the floor.
"I'm glad I don't have to clean this up," a janitor said.
Amid the clutter stood Craig Bell, the football coach at Rancho Buena Vista High School in Vista, a new school in the San Diego Section this year.
"Welcome to our famous cafeteria," Bell said.
Not locker room. Cafeteria.
What's more, it wasn't at Rancho Buena Vista. It was at Lincoln Middle School, a 15-minute bus ride away.
The Longhorns use Lincoln because they do not yet have their own facilities. The cafeteria is the only place where the 130 players on the freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams can store their equipment.
But taking a bus trip to practice isn't the only problem facing Rancho Buena Vista players. Getting out from under the shadow of Vista High, a larger school to the east that is steeped in football tradition, will be a much more difficult task.
Don't tell Bell and his players about being the little brother in town, however. They'll tell you that they are on their way to starting their own tradition.
But Tuesday, their immediate worry was practice.
The players brought their gear to school in the morning after the Labor Day weekend and a Friday scrimmage at Lincoln High in San Diego. They stored it in a weight room that does not yet have weights.
They were taped at "The Ranch," the nickname the school has adopted, but had to change at Lincoln Middle School.
Their bus was 20 minutes late.
When they got to Lincoln Middle School, it's not as if they had the field to themselves. The Longhorns had to wait for Lincoln's team to finish. They then had to get off the field two hours later so an army of Pop Warner players could practice.
"That field is starting to look like Carlsbad State Beach," Bell said of the balding field.
The practice field at Rancho Buena Vista was supposed to be finished by Tuesday, but it wasn't. Bell said he has no idea when it or the locker rooms will be done. A football stadium is even further in the future, so for the next few years Rancho Buena Vista will play its games at Vista.
"It's a real headache," said Rick Bethel, Rancho Buena Vista athletic director. "It will be a minor miracle if we can (continue to) get all the players to and from practice. It just takes time to build facilities."
Said Bell: "The kids are resilient. They're handling it pretty well."
Even at practice, the Longhorn players cannot avoid the presence of the "other" school. Those Pop Warner players wear uniforms with Vista High School's black and red colors and red helmets with the word "Vista" on the front. There wasn't a gray helmet with a maroon longhorn in the bunch.
Vista has been the high school in town since before any of these students were born. In fact, Dick Haines, Vista's coach, has been there 18 years.
However, Vista's reputation has been established through success, not longevity. Since 1979, when the section's first 3-A division football championship was held, Vista has won the title twice and been the runner-up twice.
Rancho Buena Vista will be competing in the 2-A division.
"Dick built a mystique and it hangs there," said Bell, an assistant at Vista the last two years after leaving the head coaching job at San Dieguito.
Excepting seniors, students on the city's west side had no choice but to attend Rancho Buena Vista. As might be expected, Vista's mystique was hard to give up.
Junior Al Aliipule, for example, would be have been a starting linebacker at Vista, as he was a year ago. Now he is a Longhorn.
"I was upset at first," said Aliipule, who also plays fullback. "People at (Vista) said a lot of stuff to me about going to a smaller school."
Sophomore quarterback David Roberts felt the same way. However, like Aliipule, he feels differently now.
"It's a challenge," Roberts said. "We're the underdogs. We want to take advantage of that. We want to be ourselves. We want to build our own tradition."
To speed that process, Bell hired winners. One is freshman coach Steve Hargrove, who led Vista's freshmen to a 29-1 record the last three seasons. Most of Rancho Buena Vista's juniors were undefeated under Hargrove and again as junior varsity players last year.
"Not losing is good for the attitude," Bell said. "When you achieve success, you believe in yourself, and that makes you more successful. But you have to remember that playing freshman football and playing varsity are two different things."
How has the attendance split affected Vista? Haines said the biggest loss is depth.
"We lost a lot of good young kids," Haines said. "Down the line, that will hurt us. But we're still a big school (more than 2,000 students). There is no reason why we can't have a good football team with that many kids.