Hard times have come to Wilmington.
At Banning High School, where they are usually hoisting another city football championship banner about this time, the Pilots and first-year Coach John Hazelton struggled through an up-and-down, 5-5 year and were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round--their quickest farewell since 1976.
At Harbor College, first-year coach Chris Ferragamo, fresh off his long-running success at Banning, swallowed a large dose of reality in the form of a 2-7-1 season.
Their seasons were so similar, and so strange from the start, that it wouldn't be surprising if Hazelton and Ferragamo spent their time consoling each other.
Instead, Ferragamo is upbeat as he recruits and plans for next fall, and Hazelton is ready to get back on the field and reestablish the Banning program in his own image.
It was a year of hard-learned lessons for both. Now, both say, it's time to start putting together the 1988 season and shutting up the nay-sayers.
Ferragamo, sitting in his office under a sign reading, "Enthusiasm Is the Force That Creates Momentum," said with customary gusto: "I'm doing lots of recruiting--I'm recruiting like crazy. We started early. We've been taking our 47 freshmen and our redshirts (players who sat out a year) and been putting them in the weight room. We started Nov. 15--the day after our last game. The key for us next year is to be bigger and stronger."
Hazelton, getting ready for Christmas break, was giving out footballs to athletes who wanted to play catch over the vacation.
"We've fairly well regrouped already and (are) headed toward next year," he said. "There was a group of juniors out on the field the Monday after we lost (in the playoffs). They had a little reaction like, 'This is never gonna happen again. Let's get after it.' This is a group that will be mine and mine alone. The juniors were always the ones that believed."
It was the end of an era last winter when Ferragamo left Banning--where he starred as a lineman and returned to coach for 17 years, winning eight city titles. His hiring at nearby Harbor College was announced as the dawn of a new day at the college, even though the team was coming off a conference title.
Ferragamo did make cosmetic improvements, right from the start. He started a boosters club that raised nearly $40,000 to build an impressive weight room. He got new uniforms. The players were provided with good football shoes.
More than 80 players suited up at the beginning. They scrimmaged against Taft, and were bloodied but unbowed. Maybe the warning signs weren't clear enough, or were masked in an aura of rose-tinted optimism.
But reality hit rapidly: a 28-0 opening loss to Moorpark; a struggling 10-3 victory over San Bernardino Valley; a big victory over out-manned Victor Valley; then losses--some tough, some not close--the rest of the way, with one tie mixed in.
Worse than the losses themselves, several of which came in the closing minutes, was the way the team played. Ferragamo's option quarterback, Eddie Kapu, broke his wrist in a summer all-star game and never got to play. To Ferragamo's dismay, he couldn't find a quarterback who could play his game.
The team also had trouble on the ground, because the line was constantly overpowered. To Ferragamo, whose Banning teams had manhandled opponents, this was like trying to learn a foreign language without a dictionary.
"Our high school teams were stronger than this team," Ferragamo said, shaking his head in disbelief. "We got pushed around so bad, it was a joke. Valley pushed us around like crazy.
"It was a shock. All of a sudden, I realize we can't block. I'm an offensive line coach, and we can't block. I looked at films of Moorpark--those guys were strong. They pushed our fannies all over the field. I figured it was technique, so we went back to practice and worked on blocking technique. It wasn't technique. I was in total shock and dismay at our lack of strength. You have to be strong in this league. You're not gonna be able to over-finesse 'em. Everybody's the same size. You win in the off-season (teaching technique and weight-training)."
There were other surprises. Players came and went, with nearly half of those who suited up for the first week of practice gone by November.
"Guys show up for a few weeks, look pretty good, then disappear," he said with a look of disbelief. "You call him up. 'Coach, I got a job.' That's my first-team tackle. It was musical players. I didn't like that. That's not the kind of kid I want to go after. I want the kid who wants to go on, that football means something to."
There was also a lack of team spirit that Ferragamo had never known at Banning. That, he said, is changing. "We had a group, not a team," he said. "We had a group of guys coming in from all over. There was no real feeling for each other. This year we're talking like a team: 'What are we gonna do?' "