El Modena High School's 1986 football season was as uncharacteristic as it was unsuccessful.
Since 1978, El Modena had won three Southern Conference titles and been runner-up twice.
But last season, El Modena finished just 5-5, failed to advance to the Southern Section playoffs for the first time since 1973 and missed the Southern Conference semifinals for the first time since 1978.
So the Vanguards regarded their 21-10 victory over Edison last week as a good sign.
"Everybody is excited about beating Edison, and rightfully so," Coach Bill Backstrom said. "Last year was a totally different story. We're El Mo, and everybody expects you to do great things. The problem was, I was a first-year coach and we had only two kids returning."
El Modena will try for its second victory of the season when it plays host to Esperanza (1-0) at 7:30 tonight at Fred Kelly Stadium.
The Vanguards have found one unlikely source for their improvement this year. He is Don Ambrose, a senior defensive end whom Backstrom persuaded last year to delay a career as a professional motocross racer.
"He's a good wrestler," Backstrom said. "That's how we found out about him. We talked him into coming out for the team. At first he said, 'Well, I've got these motocross races that I do.' "
Backstrom advised him to hold off on turning pro for a few years, at least until after he graduated from high school.
"I said, 'You have your whole life to do that (motocross racing),' " Backstrom said. Ambrose agreed to exchange his racing helmet for a football helmet, though he was not an immediate success on the field. But he stuck with the game, and he has blossomed beyond Backstrom's expectations.
"I'm just shocked at how improved he is," Backstrom said. "He's not very experienced, but we just worked with him. It takes time to understand the game, and he'd never played football before."
Last year, he played mostly on the junior varsity, but he has made the jump to a starting position this season.
Ambrose pressured Edison quarterback Greg Angelovic and helped to contain the Charger running backs in the Vanguards' victory. El Modena sacked Angelovic five times and held the Chargers to just 62 yards rushing.
Still, Backstrom is "cautiously optimistic." He pointed out that Esperanza--which beat Marina, 14-7, last week--might be too big for the Vanguards.
"Their offensive line reminds me of the Great Wall of China--it's insurmountable, it's huge," Backstrom said.
In tonight's other games: El Toro (1-0) meets Fountain Valley (0-1) at LaBard Stadium; Kennedy (0-1) plays Santa Ana Valley (0-1) at Santa Ana Stadium; Whittier (0-1) is at Garden Grove (1-0); Millikan (0-0) faces Pacifica (0-1) at Bolsa Grande Stadium; Savanna (0-1) plays host to Rancho Alamitos (1-0) at Glover Stadium in Anaheim, and Laguna Hills (0-1) and Estancia (0-1) play at Davidson Field. All games start at 7:30.