Think of Banning High football, and you can't help but think of the great running backs who have passed through the school.
The Pilots' ball-carrying alumni include two-time L.A. City Player of the Year Stanley Wilson (Cincinnati Bengals), former UCLA star Freeman McNeil (New York Jets), rugged fullback Michael Alo (ex-USC), speedster Danny Andrews (ex-UCLA) and USC's current fullback, powerful Leroy Holt.
Derek Sparks could be the next player to join that illustrious list.
Banning's sophomore fullback is only 15 years old, but already he's showing the talent that could earn him a major-college scholarship as a senior.
"If I had to compare him to a recent fullback at Banning, I'd compare him to Leroy Holt," said Banning Coach Joe Dominguez. "But there's a difference. Derek has breakaway speed. I think he's the best fullback in the City."
Sparks displayed his speed Wednesday night, running for touchdowns of 62 and 41 yards in the Pilots' 41-24 win over Fairfax in the quarterfinals of the L.A. City 4-A playoffs at Venice High.
He finished with 228 yards on 19 carries, marking the fifth time he's gone over 100 yards rushing in a game this season. It was his first 200-yard game. Moreover, he surpassed 1,000 yards on the season, a remarkable feat when you consider that he only had 8 yards on 2 carries in Banning's first two games.
Sparks did not carry the ball in the Pilots' first game, a 25-10 win over San Fernando on Sept. 9. Chris Griffieth, Banning's leading rusher last year, started the season at fullback but was kicked off the team by Dominguez after the second game, a 21-20 loss to Long Beach Poly.
That opened the door for Sparks, who has made the most of his opportunity.
Dominguez says the 6-foot, 195-pound fullback has improved tremendously since the beginning of the year, especially in his blocking.
"He's incredible," the coach said. "He could have had a 300-yard night against Fairfax, but we only played him for one series in the second half. I think we're capable of winning the City championship if he keeps having games like he's been having."
Sparks has rushed for 1,121 yards and 13 TDs on 133 carries behind a big offensive line that includes at least two major-college prospects, tackle Bob Whitfield (6-7, 275) and guard Andy Gonzalez (6-4, 245). Having those giants in front of him has helped, but Sparks has shown he can gain the tough yards when needed.
He had 94 yards on 21 carries in a 24-13 loss to Carson two weeks ago.
Sparks figures to play a key role again Friday night in the semifinals when Banning (10-2) visits San Fernando (8-3) in a rematch of their season opener. One thing is certain: He'll play a bigger role than he did as a spectator in the first meeting.
Perhaps the worst thing that happened to Hawthorne's football team Friday night was when Canyon linebacker Brian Zemojtel had to leave the game with an injury early in the third quarter.
This prompted Canyon Coach Harry Welch to move tailback Mark Santos to linebacker and bring Chris Peery off the bench. Peery, the Cowboys' regular tailback, had been nursing a sprained ankle when he entered the game with Canyon trailing, 14-7.
The rest, as they say, is history. The 6-1, 220-pound Peery barreled his way past Hawthorne for 147 yards and 3 touchdowns on 14 carries to spark the visiting Cowboys to a 29-14 win in the quarterfinals of the CIF Division II playoffs.
"Peery gutted it out because we needed him," said Welch, whose team won its 10th straight game to improve to 10-2 heading into the semifinals against Buena of Ventura. "He wasn't at full speed, but he was still good."
Canyon, which dominated the game with superior linemen, finished with 343 yards rushing compared to 117 for Hawthorne. The Cowboys did not attempt a pass in the second half.
"They just ran the ball down our throats," said Hawthorne Coach Goy Casillas, whose team finished with an 8-3-1 record. "We're not as strong as they are on the line. You win games on the line."
Peery, who missed Canyon's playoff opener because of his injured ankle, scored on runs of 21, 8 and 26 yards in the second half as the Cowboys shut out Hawthorne, 22-0, after intermission.
"I thought maybe we had the speed to get them," Casillas said, "but it didn't turn out that way."
Hawthorne quarterback Curtis Conway scored all of the Cougars' points on a 50-yard run in the first quarter, a 38-yard interception return in the second quarter and a 2-point conversion run, but he also made his share of mistakes.
He completed only 4 of 13 passes for 51 yards and was intercepted twice. His most damaging mistake occurred on Hawthorne's first play of the second half.
After defensive tackle Stan Ford recovered a Canyon fumble at the Cowboys' 30-yard line, Conway threw into heavy coverage and his pass was intercepted by Zemojtel, who returned it to the Hawthorne 49. Conway knocked Zemojtel out of bounds and got into a pushing match with a Canyon player, drawing a penalty to give the Cowboys a first down at the Cougar 34.