The Contreras family was having dinner in their Camarillo home on a winter night in 1978 when Andy Contreras, son of the new football coach at Westlake High, piped up.
Andy, then 5 and the eldest of George Contreras' two sons, peered over the peaks of mashed potatoes on his plate and announced: "Dad, I want to play football at Westlake someday."
Caught somewhat off guard but filled with fatherly pride, Contreras, whose team had just completed the school's first season with a 1-8 record, gently explained to Andy that because of where they lived, he'd have to attend Rio Mesa. Undaunted, Andy's eyes sharpened, and he asked: "Well, Dad, will we play you guys?"
Told Rio Mesa and Westlake likely would face each other, Andy said: "Well, Dad, we're going to beat you."
Nearly nine years later, Contreras still laughs at the recollection. "In about two bites he had gone from wanting to be here to beating our butts," he said. "So we look to be 0-1 in the 1992 season, by Rio Mesa."
That might be what the Westlake program is looking for--another steppingstone loss. Contreras, who twice has been involved in defeats that immediately and drastically changed the course of the Westlake program, would prefer not to wait another five years to get it.
The first pivotal defeat was in 1978, in the inaugural season, against defending and eventual Frontier League champion Rio Mesa. The woeful Warriors, with a defense manned by six sophomores, were 1-7 entering the game. They lost, 28-14, but the score had been tied, 14-14, at halftime. Rio Mesa had to scramble to win.
"I really think that loss against that quality of opponent the last game of the year was kind of what we built on," Contreras said. "Everybody knew, hey, we could play. That pretty much laid the foundation for things."
Upon that foundation, Westlake built a mini-dynasty: a 9-3 record and a Frontier League championship the following year, and Marmonte League titles in 1980 and 1982. Westlake was 32-13 in the four years after the Rio Mesa loss.
"Those were great years," Contreras said. "We'd go on the road and we had more people in the stands on our side than they had on the home side."
The success on the field was a boon to more than the Westlake program. Contreras was hailed as somewhat of a hero, transforming the program into a winner just one season after relinquishing his job as an assistant under Bob Richards on the Thousand Oaks sophomore team.
"I think people will always want to be part of a winner," he said. "There was tremendous support. The community was alive and things were going quite well."
Then, in the 1982 quarterfinals of the conference playoffs, fate cold-cocked Westlake football. The Warriors lost to Oxnard, 20-19, after holding a 13-point lead at halftime. Westlake, which had what Contreras called, "the best all-around team we've ever had," finished 10-2. Oxnard advanced to the semifinals. Contreras retreated into the doldrums.
"It was a loss that, quite frankly, took me two years to get over," he said. "There was a lot of nights replaying the end of that game. I felt that team had the ability to be a CIF championship contender."
Westlake still could be waiting to recover. Since that night, the Warriors have compiled a 19-25 record, and Westlake is the only Marmonte League team in the past four years to fail to make the playoffs.
Westlake's football program is hardly crumbling, but the question remains: What has happened to transform a perennial contender for league titles to a team struggling to reach the playoffs?
Pose that question around Westlake and the response--from administrators to boosters--is inevitably a reference to the Warriors' perpetual lack of size.
"You walk around campus, and you just don't see many big guys," Athletic Director Bob Fisher said.
"The biggest problem that Westlake has had is that they've never had a team with any big kids," said longtime booster Sue Wellman, whose son Gary played for Westlake and now is a scholarship player at USC. "Hey, the kids play with heart, but what are you going to do?"
Contreras' answer upon his arrival was to institute the Delaware wing T, an offense based on deception--finesse rather than brute strength. The smaller linemen were instructed to use speed and savvy to their advantage.
Once a conundrum for perplexed defensive coordinators, the wing T has lost its surprise element. Camarillo Coach Carl Thompson admits it was more difficult to stop when Westlake was the only team running that type of offense. Royal and Channel Islands, also Marmonte League schools, now employ the wing T.
"When George was the only one running it around here, it was tougher," Thompson said. "In fact, for $3.95 you can buy a book on the Delaware wing T."
Thompson isn't convinced that the offense is outdated.
"That's a very difficult offense to stop," he said. "It's ideally fit for Westlake. You don't really have to be big to run it. In fact, it helps if you're not."