The best high school quarterback in Orange County . . . California . . . possibly the entire country . . . is without a doubt, absolutely, ta-da, Bret Marinovich of El Capistrano. Oops, scratch that. I meant, Todd Johnson of Toro Valley.
Actually, I'm flustered silly by the whole thing. Every day, for the past two seasons, the same argument: Who's No. 1--El Toro's Bret Johnson (there, that's better) or Capistrano Valley's Todd Marinovich? Inquiring minds want to know.
So it was off to the Capistrano Valley stadium Friday evening for The Big Game. Marinovich vs. Johnson. Tall vs. Kind of Tall. Classic Dropback vs. Ultra Mobile.
By 6:30, a full hour before kickoff, you need a court order to get a parking space. Tow trucks patrol local shopping center lots. Several nearby residents charge for parking.
At the two stadium ticket windows, workers keep repeating themselves.
"Standing room only, ladies and gentlemen. And no refunds on tickets. Sorry."
"And you're still charging $4 a ticket?" says a fan, shaking his head.
He buys a ticket. In all, a crowd of about 7,000 will squeeze itself into and around stadium bleachers designed for audiences of 4,000. Before it's over, the ticket seller will run out of $1 bills, unable to provide change . . . and no one will mind.
"Incredible," says one worker.
"The game of the century," says another.
Game programs are sold out. The empty boxes sit near a stadium fence. Plenty of Capistrano Valley scarfs available. At $10 apiece, plenty left, too.
Two cable television crews are here; one from ESPN's headquarters in Connecticut, the other from a local network. A mother and her child, who is maybe 4 or 5, stare at the television equipment. "This is such an important game," he says in a tone grave and serious. His mother smiles and nods her head.
Several sheriff's department cars circle the stadium. Private security officers mingle with the growing crowd. Usually it takes only six officers for a game here. Friday, it takes 20. "Big rivalry," says one of the security members, "and you know how that goes."
Dick Enright, Capistrano Valley's head coach, paces the sidelines, shaking hands with his players. "Ready?" he says to one.
Assistant coaches sit high atop their portable platforms. They wear headphones and serious looks.
El Toro receives. Out comes Johnson, a 6-foot-or-so package of nerve endings. He runs as if he just held up the corner liquor store. Quick, tough, strong-armed, Johnson represents the Chargers' best chance for victory.
Little happens on El Toro's first possession. Johnson overthrows a receiver. Soon the Chargers punt.
Now it is Marinovich's turn. The county's career passing yardage leader, Marinovich has the look of a quarterback, sort of a left-handed Steve Bartkowski. Red hair pokes out of his helmet. A 6-4 Huck Finn with pads, he is.
The Cougars begin to drive. A run here, a pass there. A Capistrano Valley assistant perched on the platform notices a problem. He speaks into his headset, but no one hears him. He tries again. Nothing. Finally, he discards the headphones and yells down to the field until someone notices.
Meanwhile, the Cougars move slowly toward the Charger end zone. A holding call temporarily stops the drive. "Hey, Charlie," says Enright to a referee, "you're killing us. You're killing us."
Moments later, Marinovich finds wide receiver Rich Thomas open on a post pattern. Thomas catches the ball just short of the El Toro six and is immediately hit by two defenders. He staggers off the field, his facemask bent and stretched, his nose bleeding and broken. Trainers place a bag of ice over his eyes and forehead. Tears stream down his cheek. Thomas doesn't see Marinovich complete a six-yard touchdown pass to Toney Jenkins.
Jenkins returns to the bench, checks on Thomas and then grants an interview with one of the roving cable TV reporters. "I feel pretty good," says Jenkins, "but we still got a long way to go."
Capistrano Valley takes a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter, this time on a 77-yard run by Matt Spence, Marinovich's best buddy. The Cougar band plays a rendition of the Notre Dame fight song. Capistrano Valley fans begin talking of a rout. They have seen Marinovich do little more than hand the ball off and already they lead by two touchdowns.
But Johnson, who has been hurt by several dropped passes in the first half, moves El Toro quickly down the field with less than a minute remaining. The Chargers score on a one-yard plunge by Adam Brass. Halftime comes and the Chargers now trail, 14-7.
Fans, many pressed against a wire fence surrounding the stadium, others sitting on a wall outside the facility, race toward the concession stand. The Cougar band begins its halftime program. Bryan Taylor, who plays alto sax in the band, stands alone, near a pickup truck parked off the field. He wears his band uniform but doesn't march. Foot injury.
His thoughts on the game: "Great, as long as we're winning."