Canyon High football players know about fear.
Losing to archrival Hart or dropping a playoff game rocks the foundation of any self-respecting Cowboy, but his nervous system is only mildly jangled compared to the full-scale red alert caused when a player meets face to face with an angry Harry Welch.
The Canyon coach is physical with his players, but it's not his hands-on approach that scares them. It's the avenging face of Welch that does.
The ultimate intimidation is "ragdolling," Canyon slang for the humbling experience of a screaming Welch charging toward a player, grabbing his face mask and threatening to jump inside the helmet with him. Players strive to avoid such encounters and will readily admit that being ragdolled usually leaves a lasting impression.
"When he gets a hold of you and he's in your face, you've got to listen to what he has to say," said Troy White, a former Canyon linebacker now attending San Diego State. "It was an attention getter--and it worked."
Scare tactics notwithstanding, the enduring image of Welch since he assumed the coaching job at Canyon in 1982 is that of a winning coach. He has put the Canyon Country school of 2,100 on the football map with three Southern Section titles and a 69-9 record over the past six seasons, a mark that includes a 46-game win streak that matched the Southern Section record.
Canyon now is in the midst of a new streak, taking eight consecutive wins and a 9-2 record into tonight's Coastal Conference playoff game against Pasadena at Arcadia High. In many ways, this has been Welch's most provocative season. Perhaps the most grueling, yet perhaps the most rewarding.
The rewarding part is easy to understand. Canyon entered the season with last year's marquee names lost to graduation. Gone were skill-position players Ken Sollom, Lance Cross, Paul Chadwell, Chad Zeigler and Trevor Doyle. During the summer, Canyon routinely lost in passing-league games.
The Cowboys entered the season with little hope of finishing above .500 and were rated as an outside contender for a playoff spot. Almost no one expected them to complete an undefeated Golden League season and enter the playoffs as the top-seeded team in the Coastal Conference.
"I'm like an old man except I'm reminiscing about the present," Welch said. "Look what these kids are doing. I don't know how much credit I deserve, but I'm glad to be a part of it."
At least he is now.
Canyon opened 1987 with a 41-21 loss to Hart and, after a 22-18 win over Chaminade, lost to Thousand Oaks, 13-10, in part because of Welch's decision to go for an onside kick early in the fourth quarter. Thousand Oaks retained possession and scored the winning points.
Reeling from the Thousand Oaks defeat, Canyon suffered another loss when running backs Cam Cross and Chris Peery quit the team the next week. Peery returned two days later, but Cross sat out the season.
With Welch losing games and players, his methods came under scrutiny. He had heard criticism before and it resurfaced in September. Welch was a man on the run. "A sharp real estate agent could have made quite a deal on my house right about that time," he said.
The criticism centered on the same things Welch detractors always have complained about--that he demands too much from his players. His practices sometimes stretch six hours and are peppered with verbal assaults and the aforementioned ragdolling.
Even longtime supporters of Canyon football sometimes question Welch's methods.
Art Dolder, a pastor at the Christian Family Church in Newhall whose son Jeff was an all-league lineman at Canyon in 1985, supports Welch and says he is grateful his son played for him. But, like others, he is disturbed by some of the coach's motivational techniques.
"From my position, he uses language that I wouldn't use, but that's his method," Dolder said. "And, as parents, we always had to work our schedule around football. But kids know that going in. It's a very intense program."
Despite Welch's intimidating manner, it is his physical approach to coaching that stirs the most controversy. But, in his mind, he distinguishes between being physical and abusive.
"One is done for positive results and the other is done to cause damage," Welch said. "I know where the line is and I've never gone beyond it."
White, an outside linebacker on the 1985 Canyon team that won a Southern Section title, suffered the indignity of a public ragdolling in a playoff game. Displeased with the play of his outside linebackers in a game against Santa Maria, Welch called a timeout after a long Santa Maria gain. He charged onto the field and in full view pulled a double ragdoll, nabbing White and fellow linebacker Greg Smith.
"Our rule as linebackers was that no one gets outside of you," White said. "Greg Smith and I were on the same side of the field and the running back still got outside of us. We knew we were going to get it, but we were surprised he called a timeout.