Lou Farrar, football coach at Charter Oak High in Covina, thought things had hit rock bottom when the Chargers finished with a 1-9 record in 1986.
Unfortunately for Farrar, the worst was yet to come. That happened last July 18 when a fire charred the coaches office, weight room and several physical education classrooms.
The fire caused $125,000 damage and Farrar lost irreplaceable trophies, files and videotapes of past opponents.
"All I had left was what was in my briefcase," he remembers.
That put the Chargers at a disadvantage heading into the season, but Farrar said it provided a rallying point.
"It really lit a fire in the program," he said. "All you had to do was take a look at the building and the look on the kids' faces."
Farrar said that was a big factor in the dramatic football turnaround this season. The Chargers improved to 8-4, finished second in the rugged Sierra League and reached the CIF Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
Their record also represents the third best improvement of a CIF Southern Section team and helped Farrar earn the 1987 Times San Gabriel Valley coach of the year honor.
He said the memory of the 1986 season also provided inspiration for his team. "I had a psychologist who sent me a card that said: 'Out of the fire rises the Phoenix.' We were just determined that we would rise above it and we were not going to finish 1-9 again."
The coach received an indication that 1987 would be better when the Chargers rolled over Bonita, 34-13, in their first game and knew for sure after they visited Colton of the Big Five Conference in their second game.
"Last year they beat us and it took six weeks for us to recover from the physical beating," Farrar said. "A lot of people here didn't want us to play them again, but our kids wanted to play them. We beat them 26-24 and got out of town."
After posting a 4-1 non-league record, the Chargers finished 3-2 in their league and defeated Norco (34-14) in the first round of the conference playoffs. Then they lost to Montebello, 26-14, but Farrar said the team left him with lasting memories.
"We didn't win a championship, but as far as I'm concerned these kids are champions," he said.
Farrar, who guided Charter Oak to a 13-0 record and the CIF Southeastern Conference title in 1985, has a 22-13 record in three years. He also was coach of cross-town rival Royal Oak for two years before it merged with Charter Oak in 1985.
The coach and two athletes received special honors at The Times High School Football Awards Breakfast. The athletes are Mazio Royster of Bishop Amat, named back of the year for the valley, and lineman Bascom Mellon of Diamond Bar, lineman of the year.
Royster, Mellon and Farrar each received a trophy. The 23 members of the All-San Gabriel Valley first-team offense and defense were awarded golden plaques and certificates, as were players from other Times circulation areas: Orange County, Westside, San Fernando Valley, Glendale, Ventura County, Southeast, South Coast, South Bay, San Diego County and Central City.
The awards, presented last Sunday at the Anaheim Hilton, were provided by the Los Angeles Times Fund.
Presenting the awards was Larry Smith, who guided USC to an 8-3 record and a berth in the Rose Bowl in his first year as coach of the Trojans. Smith, the guest speaker, addressed 276 all-star players and their parents and coaches.
For Royster, the award caps a brilliant senior season in which he was the valley's leading rusher.
The 6-1 and 179-pound speedster had the heavy task of replacing running back Eric Bieniemy, who started for Colorado after rushing for 4,882 yards and 64 touchdowns in his last three high school seasons and winning the valley back of the year honor last year.
Royster rushed for 707 yards as a fullback in his junior year. He took advantage of his opportunity to be in the spotlight as a senior, rushing for 1,704 yards and 17 touchdowns in 263 carries--an average of about 6.5.
He also caught 10 passes for 162 yards and a touchdown to help the Lancers finish with their third consecutive 11-1 season and Angelus League championship.
Royster's rushing figure placed him third on the all-time, single-season list at Bishop Amat behind Bieniemy, who holds both first- and second-place honors for single-season rushing, and his two-year total of 2,411 yards left him third on the career list behind Bieniemy and Pernell Taylor.
Selected as his league's most valuable player, Royster has been recruited by Washington, USC, Pittsburgh, UCLA, Syracuse and Iowa.
Mellon, a 6-4 and 255-pound senior, was regarded as one of the premier defensive tackles in the state at the start of the season and earned a place on scout Max Emfinger's preseason top 100.
He lived up to the billing by finishing with 126 tackles, 13 quarterback sacks and one interception to lead a defense that allowed only 49 points during the regular season.