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PREPS '94 : Dating Game : Successful Programs Having an Increasingly Hard Time Filling Up Their Schedules

August 28, 1994|MICHAEL ITAGAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most coaches wouldn't mind their dilemma.

While Los Alamitos and Esperanza have experienced great success recently--winning or sharing a Southern Section football championship the past four seasons--they also have endured losses, even before they reach the playing field.

They're losing quality nonleague opponents, as the number of teams willing to take on the two titans has been dwindling.

"Our phone doesn't ring off the hook with teams trying to schedule us," Esperanza Coach Gary Meek said.

Valencia, which has won two section championships in the past three seasons, has similar problems.

"Because of our success," Tiger Coach Mike Marrujo said, "some teams have dropped us from their schedules."

Esperanza, Irvine, Los Alamitos, Mater Dei and Valencia have combined to win 10 section championships and 81% of their games in the past five seasons. Nine of those 10 championships have come in the past three seasons, when the schools have won nearly 90% of their games.

So it's no wonder many teams shy away from these powerhouse programs.

"I guess it's a nice problem to have," Los Alamitos Coach John Barnes said laughing.

But if strong teams have problems finding opponents, why don't they play each other?

"That's how it works sometimes," Meek said. "Last season, we couldn't find a first game. Irvine had the same problem where they were stuck in a situation with no one to play."

In last season's opener, Irvine upset Esperanza, then-ranked fourth in the county, 35-14. It was an indication of things to come for Irvine as the Vaqueros won 12 of their next 13 games to win its third consecutive section championship.

Though Esperanza won't be playing Irvine this season, the Aztecs will play Mater Dei on Sept. 16. The Aztecs upset Mater Dei, then-ranked No. 1 in the county, 33-7, in a nonleague game last season.

The Monarchs also will play Irvine on Sept. 29. But that's the only other meeting between any of the five county powers in a nonleague game.

Los Alamitos, which enters the season with a 35-game unbeaten streak, faces only one Orange County opponent on its nonleague schedule: Kennedy, the Garden Grove League champion last season, on Sept. 9.

The Griffins will get stern out-of-county tests from Carson, the defending City Section 4-A champion, on Sept. 22 and Pasadena Muir, which is ranked in the Top 25 of one national high school preseason poll, on Sept. 29.

"Personally, I don't think the top teams in the county play each other enough," Irvine Coach Terry Henigan said. "But one of the big reasons they don't is that no team wants to get beat up before the stuff that counts, the league games."

Said Barnes: "As a football fan, I'd love to see more of those games, too. But if your team is any good, you'll be playing those top teams in the playoffs anyway.

"We've tried to set up what we thought would be attractive matchups, but we've been turned down a number of times. However, I feel every coach has the right to set up his schedule in whatever manner he feels is right for his program and his school, period."

Barnes remembers what it was like when he took over at Los Alamitos in 1979.

"If you're starting with a program that's been losing, to help turn it around you have to find opponents you feel that you can beat," he said. "Nothing can replace winning."

That is something on every coach's mind.

"Every coach wants to win," Mater Dei Coach Bruce Rollinson said. "Sure you want to have one or two games to really test your kids, but you don't want to destroy their morale by going 0-4 heading into league. That's an awful tough hill to climb."

Although Esperanza, Irvine, Los Alamitos, Mater Dei and Valencia have enjoyed tremendous success during the past five seasons, they have different approaches to building their nonleague schedules because of various factors.

"Some programs know they're going to be good, so one or two losses in nonleague play won't hurt them," Henigan said. "But there have been times when getting as many wins as possible in the preseason was very important for us.

"I like to play a variety of teams, a good mix of running and passing teams. You like to play well-coached teams, but you don't want to get in over your head."

No coach wants his team to sustain injuries in nonleague play. But for Henigan and Marrujo, who coached in divisions IV and VI last season, health is a bigger issue.

"You want to play competitive teams every week and you want to improve, but you can't get beat up," Marrujo said. "Especially for schools with lower enrollments. When you only have 35 to 40 players, lose three or four key players early and your season is affected drastically. Division I or II schools might have a little more depth in that area."

Fear of injury keeps many opponents away from Division I schools such as Esperanza, Los Alamitos and Mater Dei.

"You know if you do beat us, it's a major feather in your cap," Rollinson said. "But you'll be playing against a team that plays a physical brand of football. Some schools will look at that and say they don't have anything to gain by playing us.

"Sure they might beat us, but a couple of players could get hurt. But then you could say those injuries could happen if you play Sisters of the Poor. It's a tough call."

Said Meek: "We've played the Mater Deis, Capistrano Valleys and Long Beach Polys, but you don't want to play five great teams in nonleague play."

Added Barnes: "You're dealing with high school kids, and they can't get emotionally up for every single game. I think there's a misperception of Los Al that we're a real physical team that can beat teams up.

"But we're a finesse team. We have to find other ways to win. Honestly, I go into every game thinking how in the world are we going to beat these guys?"

But for these five schools, the answer appears to be a lot easier to come by.

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