The value of teamwork was neatly demonstrated last spring at Villa Park High School, whose baseball team opened the season with four consecutive losses.
"Everybody was playing for himself," said John Genova, the team's designated hitter. "We were good, but nobody worked together. It was time for a change."
The players held a team meeting and decided to set personal goals aside and begin working together. The Spartans regrouped, won 13 of their next 16 games and shared the Century League championship with Canyon.
Six months later, Genova and teammate Tony Inga are showing that they learned their lesson well. Villa Park is off to its best start since 1981, with Genova starring at fullback and Inga anchoring the defensive line at tackle.
"I think we learned the value of teamwork on the baseball team and it has carried over to our football team," said Inga, who played third base last spring. "The team comes first."
The team also has scored several firsts this season. The Spartans upset El Modena, 27-18, earlier this year, defeating the Vanguards for the first time in seven years. Last week, the Spartans beat Foothill, 21-6, for their first victory over the Knights in 10 years.
Tonight at 7:30 in Santa Ana Stadium, the Spartans will play Santa Ana (7-1, 3-0), and the winner will clinch at least a tie for the Century League title. A league title would be the first for Villa Park (6-2, 3-0) since 1977. The Spartans have already clinched a berth in the Southern Conference playoffs, only the second time they have qualified for the playoffs since they won the conference title in 1977.
"No one picked us to win the league," said Genova, who, like Inga, is a three-year varsity letterman. "Our initial goal was to make the playoffs, but now we want the title."
Villa Park's best football team this decade was its 1981 squad, which finished 9-3 and posted a county-record nine shutouts. In 1986, the Spartans failed to qualify for the playoffs when they lost to Santa Ana, 29-15, in the final regular-season game.
Santa Ana went on to win the Southern Conference title that year behind the rushing of sophomore tailback Robert Lee. Villa Park had to be content with a 6-4 record.
"I remember . . . that game determined who would go to the playoffs and everybody was bummed because we lost," said Inga, who was then a special teams player and a backup at defensive end.
He joined Genova in the backfield as a fullback last season in the Spartans' Delaware Wing-T offense, which sputtered most of the season. The Spartans failed to win a league game and were shut out by Foothill (35-0) and El Modena (24-0) and pounded by Santa Ana (33-14).
Genova, playing out of position at tailback, was one of the few bright spots on a team that was outscored, 242-120.
Before the start of the 1987 season, Villa Park Coach Pat Mahoney put things in perspective when he said, "The good news is we have a lot of people coming back, but the bad news is that we have a lot of people coming back."
Mahoney had 15 starters returning but decided to make some wholesale changes. He switched Genova, a basic straight-ahead runner, to fullback, where he could better use his strongest player in the Wing-T.
He moved Inga to defensive tackle, where he joined end Chris Bell and linebackers Fred Soares and Scott Creagan. The move has paid off as the Spartans have allowed an average of 11 points per game.
"John Genova has made the big difference," Mahoney said. "A year of maturity, added strength and finding him the right position has made him a much better player.
"I moved Tony to the defensive line because that was the area where we needed help. He's getting better and better each week."
Genova and Inga have been teammates since the seventh grade at Cerro Villa Junior High in Villa Park. Their ninth-grade football team finished 7-0 and outscored its opposition, 206-6.
"The only touchdown scored against us came after our quarterback pitched to a guy on another team and he returned it for a touchdown," Genova said.
Both said they will pursue baseball careers in college.
"I love football, but my size (5-10, 190) sort of dictates a baseball career," Genova said. "I'm going to play catcher this year and maybe I'll get a scholarship. I'd like to go to USC."
Inga, a talented third baseman, said the physical nature of football was the deciding factor in his plans.
"I don't want to walk around in pain all the time," he said, when asked why he wouldn't continue playing football after high school.
Both also agreed that beating Santa Ana would cap their three-year careers at Villa Park. Genova, who has scored 12 touchdowns this season, will be running against a defense that has allowed only 57 points. Inga will be matched against Santa Ana guard Jose Avalos, an all-county selection as a junior.
"The key is stopping Lee," Inga said. When it was suggested that perhaps containing Lee would be a more realistic goal, Inga said: "No, I want to stop him."
Genova is counting on some turnovers for an upset.
"We've noticed they tend to get sloppy sometimes," he said. "They're great athletes, so we're going to have to execute better than they do and hope they make mistakes."