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Righting the Ship : Santa Paula's Once-Foundering Teams Slowly but Surely Reversing Fortunes

March 24, 1988|MIKE HISERMAN | Times Staff Writer

Mothers and fathers and other family members likely will shed their fair share of tears--the happy kind--when the Santa Paula High class of 1988 graduates in June.

But if you think they'll be broken up, keep an eye on the high school's coaching staff as the diplomas are handed out. They may be weeping--sadly and profusely.

Santa Paula did not used to be good at much of anything in sports, with boys' soccer and girls' softball being about the only exceptions.

"It used to be," said Henry Jacinto, Santa Paula's baseball coach and athletic director, "that other teams would say, 'Oh, good, Santa Paula, we can all improve our statistics.

"Other schools would call what we went through a down cycle, but at Santa Paula it was that way for so long it defied the law of averages."

That is no longer the situation, however. The class of '88, and perhaps the one that preceded it, have turned the tables.

"Before, other teams expected a breather," Jacinto said. "Now they know they're in for a tough game."

In no sport is that more evident than in football. The Cardinals were 5-5-1 last season, and if that sounds mediocre then consider this: Their third-place finish in the Frontier League was their highest in 15 years.

The baseball team, which is off to a slow start but is still considered a probable playoff contender this season, was 11-1 in 1987 and won the school's first league baseball championship in 32 years. It happened to be the first time the team made the playoffs in 32 seasons, too.

Basketball? Well, one group of athletes can only do so much. The Cardinals were winless in the Frontier League for the second consecutive season. But they were more competitive.

"I notice it in every sport," said Will McInerney, quarterback of the football team, starting guard in basketball and the shortstop on the baseball team. "Even in basketball, when Santa Clara beat us, they made a point to tell us how much we improved. They beat us, but it took them a while to shake us."

And in soccer, a sport in which the Cardinals had little room to improve, they managed to anyway, winning the Southern Section 1-A Division championship.

"We've had some outstanding individuals in the school's history," Jacinto said, "but never the success these players have had as a team."

As a result, the word "tradition" is creeping into the vocabulary of Santa Paula athletes.

"When I first came here, a lot of people didn't think we could win," McInerney said. "If there was tradition, it was a tradition of losing. I think the coaches deserve a lot of the credit. They got us to believe in ourselves."

And the players, now, have returned the favor.

The school's image has improved dramatically. McInerney, wide receiver Marco Sanchez and wingback Joey Magdaleno were All-County in football. Sanchez and Magdaleno, along with Jose and Gilbert Elizarraras were selected All-Southern Section in soccer. Magdaleno, who was first-team All-Frontier League in soccer all four years he played, probably will win or share the 1-A Division's player of the year award.

Also, the reputation of athletes as students has improved.

Many of the multisport athletes are also honor students.

"That's the main difference," said Joe Magdaleno, coach of the soccer team. "These kids have the desire to excel at everything they do. Almost all of them have grade-point averages of 3.0 or better. They grew up together, play together and study together."

And together they have made a difference.

"I hear the difference out in the community," McInerney said. "People say, 'Oh, you're from Santa Paula. You guys are pretty good."

Certainly, it has not always been that way.

"We've struggled," Jacinto said, "and we still are. But it's changing. We're gaining some respect, but physically we're still mismatched in just about every sport."

Santa Paula has a co-ed enrollment of a little more than 1,000, but about 400 of those are children of migrant workers who usually do not participate in sports, Jacinto said. He estimates there is a pool of about 400 male students from which to draw athletes. Agoura, which won the Frontier League in football, has a talent pool twice that size.

"We have good kids here," Jacinto said. "But in terms of raw talent we're way behind."

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