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No Longer a Laughing Matter : Golf: Once the butt of jokes, the Eagle Rock High golf program is on the verge of becoming a dynasty.

June 07, 1990|GARY KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the upcoming movie "Days of Thunder," Tom Cruise plays an aspiring stock car driver from Eagle Rock who heads for Dixie to become the next Richard Petty.

"Where's Eagle Rock?" one perplexed Southerner asks.

"Near Glendale," another answers, sounding almost as baffled.

Audiences at home and in theaters across the nation have been laughing at Eagle Rock's expense every time the movie's trailer hits the screen.

Don Johnson, who has coached golf at Eagle Rock High since 1975, has heard the snickering before.

During Johnson's first four years as coach, the Eagles hacked, shanked and sliced their way through various municipal courses to become the laughingstock of City Section golf.

Between 1975 and 1978, the Eagles did not win a league match.

But through the past four years, it's the Eagles who have been getting the last laugh.

This season, they won their fourth consecutive league championship and placed fifth in the City finals behind Taft, Granada Hills, Birmingham and Monroe--the highest finish by a non-Valley or non-beach-community school in City Section history.

On Monday, Eagle Rock's top two players, Brad Nielsen and Leanne Wong, will compete in the state championships at the El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana.

"We don't have country club kids," Johnson said. "So we have to do things in a different way to keep them (potential players) interested."

Indeed, at Eagle Rock, the smallest high school in the City Section, a low budget requires inventiveness.

And Johnson, 59, has plenty.

A math teacher who has worked at Belmont, Marshall, Glendale and Eagle Rock high schools and Valley College during his 31-year career, Johnson considers any space--open or otherwise--fair game to become a fairway.

To that end, Johnson's players occasionally practice their swings by teeing up plastic golf balls in the baseball batting cage and using it as a driving range. Other times they take out 3-irons and whack the pods that are dropped from liquid amber trees.

"They go just like golf balls," Johnson said.

Johnson's unorthodox methods have translated well for the Eagles, who play their home matches at the Brookside Golf Course in Pasadena and at Griffith Park.

Eagle Rock has won 20 consecutive 4-A Division matches but the Eagles will move up to 5-A next year.

"I think we're going to gave a good chance to continue winning, the way people on our team are progressing," said Nielsen, a junior who won the Los Angeles Junior championship in April. "As the years pass, we're going to be well known."

The Eagles were considered Team Mulligan until 1987, when they shared the 2-A championship with The Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies.

In 1988, Eagle Rock moved up and won the 3-A title.

Last year, Eagle Rock claimed the 4-A title, going 10-0 against Palisades, Kennedy, Marshall and LACES.

Despite their success, however, the Eagles were still somewhat unknown.

That all changed at last year's City finals when Eagle Rock and Taft, a perennial power, finished the first round tied for the lead.

"All of a sudden everyone is scratching their head and asking, 'Where did these guys come from?,' " Johnson said.

This season, Eagle Rock once again went unbeaten in its division.

One of the key reasons was the play of Nielsen, who finished third in the City.

Another was the consistent performance of Wong, a sophomore whose brother, Gerald, played golf for Eagle Rock last year and competed for San Jose State this season.

And Neilsen predicts that Eagle Rock could be a contender again next season.

The Eagles lose only two players, Mike Messner and Clint Osorio, from their top seven. Steve Paredes will be back for his senior year and Omar Rice and Matt Bell will be juniors.

Which means the future looks bright beyond 1991.

The Eagle Rock campus is unique in that it is also home to seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders.

Johnson believes the success of this year's team will trickle down and help breed a new generation of talented players.

"They can't play on the team yet, but I can contact them and try to keep their interest," Johnson said.

"I think we'll continue to be successful because we have people wanting to come out and try it."

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