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THE BIG GAME : Anatomy of a Fight : Football: Thousand Oaks and Westlake high schools prepare for their annual grudge match.

November 08, 1990|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Pond scum," says Mike Ensign, a freckle-faced ninth-grader at Thousand Oaks High School. He is speaking of the 1,670 students at Westlake High School.

"They stink!" barks a sophomore footballer as an afternoon practice opens at Westlake High. He is speaking of Mike Ensign and his 2,120 confederates at Thousand Oaks High.

High school football is the subject here. Ever since 1979, when the Conejo Valley Unified School District moved to relieve the pressure on Thousand Oaks High School and opened the Westlake campus seven miles to the southeast, a rivalry has simmered. And this year, when Thousand Oaks and Westlake turned out to have the two best football teams in their league and perhaps in the county, the hostilities reached a full boil.

So the meeting of the Thousand Oaks Lancers and Westlake Warriors last Friday night--with the league championship and some considerable pride at stake--promised some sort of temporary resolution.

In one sense, it was simple as a contest gets: several dozen youths in bright jerseys running into each other for a few hours; a few thousand family members and friends in the stands; a game of one-upmanship between neighboring suburban student populations who, without color-coded signs and battle cries, are impossible to tell apart.

But in another sense, the big game was anything but simple. It required concentration and cooperation among hundreds of distracted teen-agers, from the athletes to the marching band to the cheerleaders. It cost the school district a few dollars, and the community's booster clubs a few thousand, though the booster clubs usually recoup a fair amount selling concession-stand snacks. It took up scores of volunteer hours, consumed hundreds of bingo cards and two deep casserole dishes full of Marlo Thompson's shepherd's pie.

The Conejo Valley is not West Texas. But even in a comfortable suburb that teems with distractions for teen-agers and their parents, prep football claims more attention than much of the world at large. Over a week of preparations and exhortations on two campuses last week, the big game cast a long shadow.

MONDAY: The key to winning FTBL.

The Westlake High School marquee was stingy with vowels and punctuation. "FTBL AT TO 11/2 730," it said.

The T-shirt on the young athlete by the coach's office was more oblique than direct. "Pain Is Temporary," it asserted. "Pride Is Forever."

But the week's theme was clear enough. And while those messages circulated outside, Westlake coach Jim Benkert delivered his own inside. The team was stuffed into a bungalow room 11D and Benkert, in his second year at the school, was up front.

From a distance, Benkert looks like he might still be a student, and one not quite big enough to be a lineman. But Benkert is in his early 30s, a survivor of several high school football seasons as a coach in the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County. He spoke in loud, clear and blunt words.

"Are you all with me on this?" Benkert said.

Benkert complimented the varsity team on its performance the previous Friday, a 56-6 dismantling of Simi Valley High, and then turned to a batch of inspirational letters from fans and alumni. Benkert had solicited them even before the Simi Valley game was over, planning to pull them out as a morale-booster for the Thousand Oaks game.

"This one's forever," said one letter. Benkert liked those words enough to have them stenciled onto a T-shirt, which he gave away--another morale-booster--to Jim Moffat, an offensive lineman on crutches with a twisted ankle.

Benkert took over at Westlake in 1989, and brought the team in at 4-5-1, a passable season given the lean years that had come before. Then this year, quarterback Todd Preston emerged as one of Southern California's top college prospects. Benkert built an attack dependent upon finesse and Preston's passing, and in eight games, the team had eight wins.

Benkert makes a point of saying his job is to teach his players discipline and sportsmanship and not just to win football games. But his ideas do sometimes rub up against those of other school officials--when one of his kids was caught asleep in class recently, for instance. Benkert heard that Westlake officials had decided to punish the youth by holding him out of a football practice. That didn't make sense to Benkert.

"Discipline him, fine," the coach said. "But when I discipline kids, I don't take them out of math class."

TUESDAY: The price of pompons.

Barbara Tuchman, eminent historian, lay idle at Thousand Oaks cheerleader practice. Tuchman's analysis of the American Revolution, its binding broken, its due date two weeks past, was acting as a paperweight on a length of butcher paper that would soon read "Whip Westlake."

The book was someone's U.S. history assignment. Marty Crawford, the perky yet stern woman at the front of Room I6, was a current event.

"Ladies," Crawford said, "May I have your attention?"

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