" That day, something died inside of me. There's been something missing inside of me since that day. "
Bolsa Grande defensive end
Bolsa Grande High School's football program reached a pinnacle in the 28-year history of the school during the course of the 1987 season.
The Matadors were the toast of the county, riding a 20-game winning streak over two seasons. They were ranked No. 1 by the Orange County Sportswriters' Assn. and favored to win a second straight Central Conference championship.
But three days before Bolsa Grande was scheduled to play Saddleback in the second round of the playoffs, vice principal Jim Monahan discovered that a player was ineligible while making a routine grade check.
The next day, Monahan told players and coaches that the school was forfeiting five victories and its Garden Grove League championship.
"It was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do in my 21 years in education," Monahan said.
Monahan, who among other duties must monitor the eligibility of about 600 students, said administrators should have recognized the player was not eligible before the season began. But he said that the player's record was not noticed; that, in effect, a clerical error had cost the team five victories.
The league's principals voted to allow Bolsa Grande to continue in the playoffs, but the Matadors were never quite the same. They were upset by Saddleback, and suddenly the perfect season was over.
Nearly a month later, most of the players are still having difficulty understanding what happened. How did a championship season turn sour? Why were they penalized for an administrative error? Athletes at other schools are asking themselves the same questions after similar experiences.
"They took something away from us, and it's very hard to accept," said Tom Goode, the Bolsa Grande defensive end. "I still think about it all the time. I can't get it off my mind. It was the biggest emotional strain I ever had to go through."
Ricky Lepule was a member of the Matador backfield in which three players each gained more than 1,000 yards rushing. Lepule is a strong, gifted runner with excellent speed. But for a moment in his life, he felt helpless when the forfeitures were announced.
"We put our hearts into those games," Lepule said. "But there was nothing we could do in this situation. We could practice to beat teams, but we couldn't beat this (forfeitures). We felt helpless."
Greg Shadid, Bolsa Grande coach, tried to encourage his players by repeatedly telling them that they were still in the playoffs and that they should set a goal of winning the conference championship.
Shadid said the players "took the news like men" and had their best practice of the season after meeting with Monahan. But Goode said something was missing when Bolsa Grande played Saddleback two days later.
"The night before the game, a bunch of players met at (senior end) Mike Robertson's home," Goode said. "We kept telling each other that we were still in the playoffs, that everything was OK. We were kidding each other.
"We tried to ignore the forfeits, but you could tell it was on everybody's mind. It affected us emotionally and mentally against Saddleback. The final blow was losing to Saddleback.
"That was the last game I might ever play, and it left a bad taste with me. After the game, the team tried to sing the alma mater, and we couldn't get through it. Everyone broke down and cried."
Jesse Hardwick, a two-way tackle, was the largest player on the team at 6-feet 5-inches and 255 pounds. He has his college future ahead and has already planned recruiting trips to several major schools.
Hardwick finds it difficult to accept a punishment for a violation that was essentially an administrative oversight.
"We aren't blaming the guy who was ineligible," Hardwick said. "It was a mistake by someone in the front office. We had to pay for someone else's mistake. We worked hard to be No. 1, to achieve something that has never happened at this school.
"I think the news hurt the coaches as much as the players. Looking back, we felt the thrill of the victories, and then we felt the pain when we had to forfeit those victories."
Chris Leigber, Laguna Hills quarterback, said he was 100% certain that the Hawks would defeat Trabuco Hills in their last Pacific Coast League game and earn a berth in the Desert-Mountain Conference playoffs.
"It was the highest I've seen a team in four years that I played football at Laguna Hills," Leigber said. "This school has qualified for the playoffs only once. We were going to be the second team to make the playoffs and everybody was up."
But only hours before Laguna Hills played Trabuco Hills, Coach Paul Weinberger announced that the team was forfeiting two victories and a tie for using a 14-year-old player. California Interscholastic Federation rules state that all varsity players must be at least 15. The big game with Trabuco Hills was now the season-ender.