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Sports : Harbor Determined to Make '93 a Distant Memory

August 18, 1994|MITCH POLIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There was a time last year, after a brawl had followed its Sept. 25 game against Pierce College, when the future of the Harbor football program appeared in question.

With penalties levied against the school by the Western State Conference for its role in the incident, and the adverse publicity that followed, the program was staggering like a wounded prizefighter on wobbly knees.

Nearly 11 months later, the Seahawks appear to have recaptured a firm footing. As fall practice gets under way, Harbor football is very much alive and kicking.

If there were any lingering effects from last season, they are difficult to detect.

"It's just like you're reading a book," said Gene Miranda, the team's offensive coordinator. "Hopefully, you turn the page and you don't have to look back."

As far as school officials are concerned, the incident is ancient history. In the aftermath of the brawl, Harbor was placed on one year's probation by the conference and forced to forfeit its game against West Los Angeles.

There were also legal repercussions from the fight. Harbor wide receiver Dion Mills was convicted of battery and sentenced to two years probation in June for knocking out a Pierce assistant coach with a crutch during the postgame melee. As a result of the incident, Mills was also expelled by the school.

But school officials prefer to play down any long-term ramifications on the football program.

"I don't want to say much about it except that a few individuals can sometimes hurt the progress of an otherwise good organization," Athletic Director Jim O'Brien said. "It's very unfortunate that the coach got hurt. But if that hadn't happened, it probably wouldn't have gotten any publicity at all."

Harbor Coach Don Weems sought to place the incident in perspective.

"I don't think the athletes thought it was as big a deal as a lot of other people did," he said. "I don't think there is any (college) in America that hasn't been involved in an altercation of some kind. It's just unfortunate that somebody got seriously hurt in this one."

Fortunately for the Seahawks, the fallout that ensued appears to have dissipated.

Any initial concerns that there would be an exodus of players from Harbor, or that the school would lose potential recruits as a result of the incident, failed to materialize.

The Seahawks have 13 starters and 19 lettermen returning from a squad that finished with a 4-5 record. The group includes eight starters from one of the top-rated defenses in the state community college ranks.

"We didn't lose one player because of what happened," Miranda said. "We even got a couple of players who came in from other programs."

Moreover, Harbor has enjoyed one of its finest recruiting campaigns in recent years. Topping the list of incoming freshmen are three former standouts from perennial prep power Hawthorne: offensive tackle David Camacho and his brother Ricardo at offensive guard, and quarterback Kenji Tatum.

Tatum was among the South Bay passing leaders last season, having thrown for 1,667 yards and 10 touchdowns, and David Camacho is regarded as a major-college prospect with his 6-foot-8 and 305-pound frame.

Miranda said other schools tried to use last year's incident against the Seahawks, and it was one of the first questions prospects usually asked when they were being recruited by Harbor.

"But once the kids came here and saw the true story, they felt a lot more comfortable with the situation here," he said.

Weems, for one, said he is not surprised with his team's recruiting success.

"Kids want to go to places where they can get (NCAA Division I) scholarships, and Harbor has produced as many scholarships for its players as any school in Southern California," he said. "I'll match our record with anyone.

"Harbor's not in the garden spot of the world and, for us to get kids to come here, we have to convince them that we have their best interests at heart. I don't want to see one of our kids pumping gas in the neighborhood in another year."

O'Brien said that after the incident occurred last year, the school had to work hard to ensure that any problems have been corrected and the football team is headed in the right direction. If anything, the ordeal has served as a good character-builder for the players who have returned.

"The kids really want to show that they're past everything that has happened and they just want to go out and play good football," he said.

The most pressing concern for Weems this season is Harbor's difficult conference schedule. As fate would have it, the Seahawks have been moved into the conference's Southern Division this season because of realignment and will not play Pierce.

"That was strictly from luck of the draw, nothing else," Weems said. "I'd just as soon play them, I'll tell you that."

More importantly, though, Harbor is happy that it will be able to start the 1994 season from square one.

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