Like John Wayne silhouetted against a sunset, the Canyon Cowboys have an air of invincibility.
There's the record winning streak of 46 games from 1984-87. The three consecutive conference championships. Distinguished alumni such as Brent Parkinson, now at USC, Randy Austin, now at UCLA, Ken Sollom, now at Michigan.
And a coach, Harry Welch, who has a six-year record of 70-9. Quite a legacy, no doubt, but Welch insists that this year's team, the one playing Channel Islands in a Coastal Conference semifinal Friday night at Hueneme High, is his finest. Not talentwise, but as Cowboys.
"I'm thrilled that this group of young men is playing in a semifinal playoff game," Welch said. "They are very average in skill but superior in heart."
Canyon (10-2) has won nine in a row and the Golden League title after losing nonleague games to Hart and Thousand Oaks. Yet, other than sophomore tailback Chris Peery, who has rushed for 1,243 yards, the Cowboys have little in the way of a marquee name.
"Our strength is our line," Welch said.
To see what Welch calls "Cowboy football" at its finest, watch defensive linemen Tom Curran and Sean Wheeler. Or offensive linemen Sean Sweetnam, Willie Starks and Dom Spainhower. Or linebacker Kevin Doss.
But Canyon, which needed a last-second field goal to defeat Pasadena, 22-21, last week, may be the underdog against Channel Islands (10-2), which defeated South Torrance, 39-21, last week.
The Raiders have more in common with the Cowboys than their overall record. Channel Islands is champion of the Marmonte League and boasts strong defense and an offensive line that played its best game last week, according to Coach Joel Gershon.
To see "Raider football," watch defensive lineman Roger Jones, who has a school-record 20 sacks, linebacker Ray Mosones and defensive backs John Sunia and Victor Caro. Or offensive linemen Carlos Hernandez, John Peterson, Larry Pearson, Eddie Perez, Jose Montelongo and Gil Coria.
Gershon, who is in his 14th year, cannot match Welch's .886 winning percentage, but he notched his 100th career victory last week against only 51 losses for a percentage of .662.
And if Peery is effective, Channel Islands' John Johnson is electrifying. The junior tailback has rushed for 1,527 yards in 168 carries, 9.1 yards per carry. Johnson has rushed for 611 yards in the past three weeks and even threw a 41-yard touchdown pass last week.
"He has really blossomed," Gershon said.
Time of possession, often an overrated statistic, may be crucial in this game. Channel Islands ran 62 plays--including 52 on the ground--last week to only 40 for South Torrance. Canyon also likes to grind out yardage.
"We need the ball because our defense can wear down," Welch said. "Nine of 11 starters weigh less than 175 pounds."