On the heels of a promising junior football season, defensive tackle Mike Balian of La Verne's Damien High had every reason to look forward to his senior year.
As a junior, Balian played for a young team that reached the CIF Division IV quarterfinals. An All-San Gabriel Valley selection, he was listed on several preseason national prep All-America teams during the summer.
Counting on another good season, Balian, 17, said he never anticipated that his team, ranked No. 2 in the Southern Section Division IV in a preseason poll, would lose six of eight games and be on the brink of missing the playoffs.
"We worked so hard in the summer and we thought we could live up to everyone's expectations and just destroy everyone we faced, and it just hasn't happened," he said.
The 6-4, 253-pound Balian said he and his teammates were handed a dose of reality in Damien's season opener against Downey, a 42-26 loss.
"When we lost that first one to Downey, that really brought a lot of people down to Earth," Balian said. "In the beginning of the season it was just a lot of mental breakdowns. Then toward the middle of the season it was injuries (to eight starters) that really started to affect us."
No, it hasn't exactly been the storybook season that Balian envisioned. But longtime Damien Coach Dick Larson said Balian is still having a season worthy of his reputation.
"I think if you evaluate it the right way, he's doing what he should be doing in his area," Larson said. "He can't be expected to be everywhere out there, and he is playing his position well.
"I think when we evaluate a player of his caliber, we sometimes expect him to do too much, but he's doing what he's supposed to be doing and then some."
Although his team has struggled, Balian is still one of the most sought-after players in the valley. He has been recruited by many of the West's top college programs, including Colorado, USC, UCLA, Washington, Washington State, Arizona State and UC Berkeley.
Balian said his reputation may have worked against him early in the season.
"I didn't think I was playing as well as I should have at first, and I also didn't expect teams to play me as well as they did," he said. "These last few games, I feel like I've played a little more like I expected."
Balian added: "I do think being named to the preseason All-America teams had to affect the way some teams prepared for us."
Being a prep All-American hasn't been easy, he acknowledged.
"I think I've handled it well," Balian said. "When you get named to those teams, you feel like you have to live up to those standards. I didn't get a big head or anything, though."
For the most part, Larson said, Balian has responded well to the attention.
"I think it's not unusual for someone in his position to be a little taken in by it all," Larson said. "It's quite a lot for a young man to receive the attention he has, but he's handled it quite well."
For Balian, the attention started innocently enough.
"I only got maybe two (recruiting) letters when I was a sophomore," he said. "Before and during my junior year I was getting a few more letters, and after my junior year I just got tons of mail. At the beginning of this season, I got a lot of letters."
Since, then, Balian said, "it's mellowed out a little, but I still get calls. I haven't told a lot of teams not to call, but I think a lot of schools are letting me alone because of the kind of season we're having. There are certain schools that haven't been in touch as much as they used to be."
Balian said he has benefited from several former Damien players' advice about recruiting.
"I've talked to Len Gorecki (USC), Charles Lough (Stanford) and Larry Bryant (Washington State)," he said. "I listen to them when they tell me certain things. Talking to them kind of helps you know where you stand."
He has also conferred with his parents, John and Anne Balian, although they are leaving the decision up to him.
"I'm close to the family, but my family knows that where I'm happy is most important," Balian said. "They don't want me to go to a college just to stay close to home."
Although he expects to stay in the West, Balian said he is not close to deciding which school he will attend.
"I have an open mind about it," he said. "I just want to go to a school where I can develop academically and physically. I think after my five (recruiting) trips, I'll have a good idea of where I'm going."
Larson said Balian will probably play nose guard in college. "I think that's where a lot of people see him fitting in the best," he said.
Balian doesn't care too much as long as he gets a chance to play.
"Every school that I've talked to would like to recruit me as a defensive tackle, but I'll play any position they let me play at," he said.
With a time of 4.9 seconds in the 40-yard dash, Balian has pretty good speed for his size, although he is hoping to improve for college.