When discussion turns to high-powered high school passing programs, Ventura County teams rarely merit mention. Royal has been the most pass-happy team in the county the past 10 years, but despite the impressive statistics of quarterbacks Ken Lutz and Shaun Christensen, Royal's won-lost records have been poor.
There has been such a paucity of passers that the county's top quarterback ever, Hilria Johnson of Channel Islands, is best known for holding the county career rushing record.
The message is clear: Ventura County teams win by running the ball. Ever see Thousand Oaks, Channel Islands or Ventura play? Watching soil erosion is more exciting. But those teams are in the playoffs nearly every year.
So why is a team from a quiet corner of the county flying in the face of tradition by filling the air with footballs? It starts with a coach called "Chooch" by his players and a quarterback Chooch calls "the Joe Kapp of Ventura County."
The team is Santa Paula. The coach is Mike Tsoutsouvas and the quarterback is Will McInerney, who has passed for 1,592 yards and 20 touchdowns this season, both far and away county highs.
And the strategy of let-Will-fire-at-will-from-the-shotgun may land the generally small and slow Santa Paula set in the Desert-Mountain playoffs.
The Cardinals (4-4-1, 1-2 in the Frontier League) must defeat Nordhoff on Friday night to assure themselves of a playoff berth. A loss may cause the Cardinals to turn crimson but it won't deter Tsoutsouvas (pronounced, choo-CHOO-vis) from his passing interest.
"I've always used what I call a gimmick offense," said Tsoutsouvas, who is in his third year after coaching freshman and junior varsity teams for seven years. "We just throw the ball."
But there is method to the mad-cap attack.
"We use lots of sets and variations and open it up because we try to make the defense think on the field," he said. "If they think, then they aren't reacting as well."
Actually, Santa Paula's primary formation is more often seen in a pickup game at a park. With as many as four receivers set wide, McInerney takes a long snap from seven yards behind center. You half expect him to ask for a check hike before the first play.
"The shotgun allows me time to throw," McInerney said. "Our linemen give up about 30 pounds per man. They try real hard, but when I take the snap from center, I'm swamped."
Not having to drop back from center also enables the 5-foot, 9-inch McInerney to get a clear view of the field. An adept scrambler, McInerney is second on the team with 300 yards rushing. And he doesn't throw downfield willy-nilly, either. He has completed 61% of his 201 passes and thrown only five interceptions. Most often, he finds wide receiver Marcos Sanchez or halfback Joe Magdaleno.
The only thing open more often than Sanchez in Santa Paula is the 24-hour Carrow's Restaurant. The 6-foot senior is fourth in the Southern Section and first in the county with 48 catches for 696 yards and 9 touchdowns. He has seven-catch performances in four different games.
"Me and Marcos grew up playing together," said McInerney, who has lived in Santa Paula for 12 years. "That's why he catches a lot of passes when I scramble before I throw."
Magdaleno, a third-year varsity player, needs 18 catches to become the county career leader and has 28 receptions for 296 yards and 6 touchdowns this season. He is also a defensive back and the kicker.
McInerney attributes his low interception percentage to the quality of his receivers.
"They run well-disciplined patterns," he said. "I just put the ball where only my receiver can get it. Chooch coaches the receivers. It's obvious they are well-coached."
Prowess of the passing game aside, the team has not been a big winner under Tsoutsouvas. The Cardinals were 5-5 in 1985, Tsoutsouvas' first year, and lost a first-round playoff game. Last season the team was 7-3 but had to forfeit four victories for using an ineligible player. Quarterback Joe Gonzalez was effective both years, passing for 1,655 yards in 1985 as a junior and 2,148 last season.
As long as the Cardinals give up size and quickness on the line, Tsoutsouvas has little choice but to try to move the ball over teams rather than through them. Every starting lineman but one this year is under six feet tall.
"If we had linemen who could move people out, I'm not opposed to running the ball," Tsoutsouvas said. "Until then. . . . "
Last week's 14-12 loss to league rival Agoura is a case in point. The Chargers dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage, rushing for 220 yards while holding the Cardinals to 18 yards on the ground. Santa Paula was severely overmatched, but stayed close because where there's Will, there's a way.
The size difference was apparent during warmups but the Cardinals fired up when McInerney hit Sanchez streaking down the left sideline with a 35-yard spiral to finish off pregame drills. Sanchez kept right on running into the locker room and the team, whooping it up, followed right on his tail.