El Segundo High football Coach Steve Newell says that every Friday he feels like David against Goliath.
His team, gathered from a school with an enrollment of about 600 students, has worn the underdog tag all year long.
But it's also a team that likes to slay giants, as it did last Friday when it took to the road and sent Lompoc of the Northern League reeling to a 20-8 loss, marking El Segundo's first victory in a playoff game since 1970.
Tonight El Segundo will visit Monrovia (5-6) in the second round of the Southern Section Northwestern Conference playoffs. If they win, they'll be the only El Segundo football team in history to make the semifinals. Not bad for a team that was selected to finish last in a pre-season poll of Pioneer League coaches but instead ran up an 8-3 record, second only to Leuzinger.
Not everyone was shocked with tiny El Segundo's sudden success, especially not the 39 players, who play both sides of the ball.
"A lot of teams didn't expect us to be very good until they played us," said senior Dave Lubs, who has been a key to El Segundo's success. "By then, it was too late."
It was too late for Calabasas, which took on the Eagles early in the season. El Segundo, on a 50-mile road trip, came away with a 14-10 triumph and a 3-1 record and showed a wide-open offense and a passing attack capable of the big play.
It was also too late for Redondo, with an enrollment nearly four times El Segundo's. In that league game, the Eagles showcased the gritty, hard-nosed defense that has been their trademark this year, holding Redondo to 13 yards of total offense in a 28-0 victory.
And of course it was too late for Lompoc, seeded second in the Northern League with an 8-2 record, which fell to the stingy and opportunistic El Segundo defense.
"It was just a matter of time," said Redondo Coach Les Congelliere. "They were due this year. Small enrollment or not, they have a good group of kids and fine coaches who are hard workers."
El Segundo has team-oriented, talented athletes with no individual stars. Newell said: "Everyone understands that if someone stands out in a situation, it's the supporting cast that makes it all happen."
Here are some among that gifted supporting cast, with observations from Newell:
- Heath Jones who at 6-5, 200 pounds, is a looming presence at defensive end, fullback and kicker. "A great all-around athlete. He's got size, height and speed. And that makes him a nightmare rushing the quarterback."
- Lubs, who says he's a "man in the right place at the right time." The willowy 6-0, 140-pounder walked on his senior year, won a starting position at free safety, tied a school record with five interceptions and leads El Segundo with 16 receptions. Newell calls Lubs his "golden nugget."
- Joe Montanez, the poised senior quarterback who has thrown for 1,221 yards this year. "He's a winner. He takes a beating but bounces right back up. I don't know how he does it. You cannot hurt him."
- Quick and versatile Jose Sanchez, who is a threat to break the big gain either from the backfield or on kickoff returns. He also has three interceptions, including one for a touchdown, from his left cornerback spot.
- Intense, aggressive safety Dan Brown, who leads the team with 44 tackles and has four interceptions.
- Junior linebacker Rob White, who ranks second on the team in tackles. "He loves to be physical and loves to hit, and that's what football is all about."
- Eric Evans, the explosive tailback. "He can break a game open quickly. If he gets a little room, he's gone."
- Outside linebacker Chad Stevens, who owns a reputation as a quick, powerful hitter. "He'll knock your head off."
- Lineman Mike Meza, whose 11 sacks were a pleasant surprise in his first year of football.
- A host of others, including pass rusher deluxe Matt Wise (12 sacks), flanker Donovan Gallatin (four of his eight receptions were for touchdowns), split end Drew Sherrill (15 receptions) and tight end Ted Schutte (14 receptions).
All spell trouble for opponents, often baffled by El Segundo's balance, especially on defense.
"We're a pretty small team," Lubs said. "So teams think they can run at our tackles and linebackers, but they're wrong. Then, in the third or fourth quarter, they always try to pass and that doesn't work either."
Sanchez, whose long return to the three-yard line after an interception was a key in the Eagles' victory over Lompoc, agrees.
"It doesn't matter how small El Segundo is," Sanchez said. "We try to overcome anything that stands in our way."
That tight-lipped attitude is one reason El Segundo will have to be reckoned with as something other than a hotbed for baseball talent. Most of the gridders also play on El Segundo's powerhouse baseball team. Lubs is also the point guard for the basketball team on which Jones is a board-crashing forward.
This season shows that El Segundo, which Newell calls "an isolated island floating between an ocean, an airport, the aerospace industry and the oil industry," can breed football players as well.
"This community is very aware that at times we haven't received credit when it was due," Newell said. "In fact, last week in one newspaper, it wasn't that El Segundo won but that El Segundo didn't lose."
That is all changing, in large part because of the motivating coaching of Newell and his staff, which includes play caller Craig Cousins, brothers Curt and John Garner, Brooks Douglas and Mike Smith.
"As far as I'm concerned, we have about four head coaches on this staff," said Newell, a former receiver with the San Diego Chargers and one of John Hadl's targets during the Lance Allworth era of the late 1960s. "Any one of them could be a head coach somewhere else.
"We've had our ups and downs during the years but now we're moving into a new cycle."