Another lengthy, frustrating football practice inched toward conclusion and Skip Giancanelli's breaking point had long since passed. After 29 years of coaching, it had come to this for the El Camino Real High coach.
A scrawny teen-ager in full but ill-fitting gear, panting heavily from the afternoon's workout, was as confused now as he was at the start of practice--and the start of the season for that matter. Elementary football techniques baffled the player, whose confusion heightened Giancanelli's frustration.
"When you have a kid come up and ask you when is he supposed to pass block, you scratch your head," Giancanelli said.
An assistant rushed in to scold the player for his ignorance, but Giancanelli shooed him away. "When these kids make mistakes I don't say anything anymore, because they make so many," he said sadly.
Mistake-prone practices and confused players weren't always the rule at El Camino Real. In 1970, Giancanelli's second season, ECR won the West Valley League championship with a 9-0 record and, by the decade's end, the Conquistadores were a Valley power. Three times in four years only Banning stood between Giancanelli's teams and a City Section 4-A title. They lost to the Pilots twice in the championship game and once in the semifinals, and are the last Valley team to reach the City 4-A final.
But El Camino Real hardly wins anymore. Last week's 13-13 tie with Kennedy rates as the program's high-water mark in the past three seasons. The Conquistadores (0-4-1) have gone 18 games, stretching back to the '85 season, without a victory on the field.
Giancanelli has only to look around the Woodland Hills neighborhood to find reasons for his program's decline. The building boom that spawned the school's inception in 1969 is over, and few new families have arrived. The children who helped swell the school's enrollment past the 3,000 mark in the '70s are grown and have moved away.
El Camino Real, although one of the worst hit, is not alone among West Valley City schools that have declining enrollments. Fewer students means fewer players, a phenomenon that has become a fact of life for many City coaches.
"We just don't have the kids anymore," Giancanelli said. "The numbers have been going down, down, down the past five years and it's getting worse."
Smaller rosters have forced more and more players to play both offense and defense at Valley high schools.
El Camino Real's Paul Hasson, a 6-1, 220-pound senior, almost never leaves the field during games. He is the placekicker, the starting fullback, a starting linebacker and the symbol of the new age City player in the Valley: He plays both ways.
Shifting demographics usually are of small consequence to football coaches, but smaller rosters grab their attention. Veteran coaches claim they never had problems finding 22 starters back when 100 players turned out for the team. With rosters more than 100% smaller in some cases, more and more players are pulling double duty, causing more and more coaches to pull out their hair.
"I'd love to have 22 starters but that just isn't possible anymore," said Darryl Stroh, who has been a coach at Granada Hills since 1964. "When I was the defensive coordinator here, there were players on offense that I wanted to have, but you were always able to find kids who could do a workmanlike job. No more.
"Last year we had seven kids going both ways. This year is exceptional because we only have two. We're just lucky this year."
Myron Gibford, Chatsworth's coach for nine years, is surprised to see any Granada Hills players pulling double duty.
"They never used to have guys going both ways," he said. "But it's an uphill battle all the time just to get kids out. We used to cut our roster down to 60. Now we'll take anybody. There are kids on our team now that would not have made our ballclub in '79."
Joel Schaeffer has coached at Reseda for 17 years, 10 as the head coach. Rosters ran to 70 and 80 for the varsity and junior varsity 10 years ago. This season he has 44 on the varsity with no JV team. Six starters play offense and defense.
"In the '70s, I had 'B' teams with more than 100 players, but now we have less than 50," he said. "Last year I had my smallest team ever with 42 on the varsity."
El Camino Real's story reflects the trend among City schools west of the San Diego Freeway. Despite overcrowded conditions in other parts of Los Angeles, West Valley schools have headed in the opposite direction since the boom years of the '70s.
Schools such as Taft, Canoga Park and Monroe are down 200 to 500 students from 10 years ago. Granada Hills, the district's largest high school in '71 with 4,731 students, still had an enrollment of 3,345 in '77 even though Kennedy was opened nearby five years earlier to accommodate the student crunch. Last year, enrollment at Granada Hills dropped to 2,476.