Perhaps the Valley area's most unlikely championship team will be crowned Saturday night at Kennedy High where Village Christian plays Western Christian with the Alpha League title at stake.
Village Christian, a parochial school of 510 students, opened its doors in 1949 but started playing 11-man football only five years ago. The Sun Valley school has never won a football championship and has qualified for the playoffs only once before this season.
Mike Plaisance, the team's eighth-year coach, never dreamed this would be a championship season when he assessed his team's talent in September. Only six members of the 31-player roster weighed as much as 200 pounds, and only four starters had varsity experience.
In addition, quarterback Drew Martenson is a converted defensive tackle who never before had played on offense. "He was my reclamation project this summer," Plaisance said.
By the fifth week of the season, Village Christian had lost six offensive starters--two to injuries and four to academic ineligibility. Guard Frank Castellucci broke a thumb and Craig Fromel, a tackle and linebacker who suffered a concussion in the second game, decided to sit out the season.
Victims of the first grading period were wide receivers Mike Sinatra and Ron Jones, tackle Ken Bolin and guard Kevin Arndt.
Plaisance scrambled to field an offense, taking such measures as moving Scott Phillips, a two-year starter at running back, to offensive guard. But it has not been offense that has carried the Crusaders. The team has forged a 5-4 record (3-1 in league play) on the strength of defense and the two-point conversion.
In league play, Village Christian has scored in double figures once, but only a bad snap on a punt stands between the Crusaders and an unbeaten league record. Village Christian lost to Marshall Fundamental, 2-0, during a rainstorm Oct. 31. The game's only score came late in the fourth quarter when punter Jason Jones was tackled in the end zone after failing to scoop up a low snap.
Village Christian upset Montclair Prep, 18-15, and defeated both L. A. Baptist and Maranatha with a two-point conversion, 8-7. The team allows an average of 172 yards a game and Joe Everett, a 5-6, 150-pound junior running back who has rushed 154 times for 725 yards, carries the offense.
"We have no Division I players and this team has the least talent of any since I've been here," Plaisance said. "But it has played together as a team better than any of them."
Village Christian, which already has qualified for the Southern Section Inland Conference playoffs, can clinch at least a share of the Alpha title by beating Western Christian (5-4), which is also 3-1. Montclair Prep (5-4, 3-1) can earn a share of the title with a victory over Marshall Fundamental.
If it wins, Village Christian will advance as the league's No. 1 representative based on its win over Montclair Prep.
Playoff appearances might become commonplace at Village Christian.
"The future looks bright for us," Plaisance said. "We've got 18 starters coming back next season and our JV team is playing for the league championship, too. We have a big following. I expect a crowd of 2,500 to 3,000. We really promote football here."
Other league races:
Big Five Conference
Del Rey League: Loyola (9-0, 4-0) and Crespi (7-1-1, 3-1) have qualified as the top two representatives, and Notre Dame (4-5, 1-3) and Alemany (3-4-2, 0-3-1) are out. Notre Dame can tie St. Francis (3-6, 2-2) for third place with a win over Alemany, but St. Francis defeated Notre Dame, 17-16, and would advance to the playoffs. St. John Bosco would qualify only if the Braves beat Crespi and St. Francis loses to Loyola.
Foothill League: Hart (8-1, 4-0) has qualified for the playoffs as the league's No. 1 team, and Burroughs (8-1, 3-1) has clinched the second-place berth. Burbank's six forfeitures--including three league wins--for use of an ineligible player have opened the door for San Gabriel (6-3, 2-2) or Schurr (3-6, 2-2). If those schools finish in a third-place tie, San Gabriel advances based on a 21-7 win in head-to-head competition.
Frontier League: Agoura (6-3, 3-0) plays Santa Clara (7-2, 3-0) for the league championship Friday night. Third-place hinges on the Nordhoff-Santa Paula game. A Nordhoff (4-5, 0-3) win over Santa Paula (4-4-1, 1-2) forces a three-way tie for third and puts Calabasas (2-7, 1-3) in the playoff picture. A third-place representative would be decided by a coin flip.
Santa Fe League: The winner of Saturday's game between Harvard (4-5, 3-2) and Bell-Jeff (5-3-1, 2-3) earns the third-place playoff berth. Chaminade (7-2, 5-0) and St. Genevieve (5-4, 4-1) are the league's top two representatives.
Tri-Valley League: The three playoff berths already are fixed: Carpinteria (9-0, 5-0), Santa Ynez (6-3, 4-1) and the league's surprise team, Oak Park (7-2, 4-2).