YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

PREP FOOTBALL : Esperanza Quarterback Gets Chance to Air It Out : Football: Chris Stretch often has as many as five receivers to throw to, a marked change from past Aztec strategies.


ANAHEIM — You can almost see Chris Stretch beaming behind that facemask.


He backpedals, he looks and he sees not one, not two, but five receivers running pass routes--all at the same time. What a selection. It's quarterback heaven, at least around Esperanza.

The Aztecs have shed that plow-boy image. A quarterback can limber up his throwing arm and do more than hand off these days.

Welcome to the 20th Century.

"I love it," Stretch said. "I feel like I'm in the pros. You go back there and there's a receiver open every time. We have five, six guys running routes."

That's five receivers, big guy. This isn't the playground.

OK, so Stretch stretches things a bit. One can hardly blame the kid. He is, after all, getting to throw the football, something usually done out of desperation around Esperanza. Or it used to be.

A year ago, Stretch was running the wing-T and, on many third downs, running for his life. There were nights he'd just as soon forget.

Now he can pick and choose receivers. Seven have caught at least four passes, and Brian Forth is third in the county with 24 receptions.

Esperanza, long known for its mountain-like linemen and the running backs who scurried beneath them, has had success throwing the ball. The Aztecs, ranked third in Orange County, are 3-1, with the only blemish a 38-28 loss to second-ranked Mater Dei.

Stretch, a senior, has thrown for 838 yards, seven touchdowns and only two of his passes have been intercepted. An improvement? He threw for only 612 yards and five touchdowns all of last season. He also had 10 passes intercepted.

He likes the new offense.

"That wing-T is predicated on the run," Stretch said. "We didn't run the ball too well at times last season. That put a lot of pressure on me."

How much pressure?

Take the Long Beach Poly game. Stretch was a clay pigeon and the Jackrabbits' immense front line didn't miss often.

Stretch was six of 22 for 61 yards and had three passes picked off in the 10-3 loss. He was sacked four times and took numerous other hits.

"Those guys came after him," Esperanza Coach Gary Meek said. "I think Chris was pretty shook up."

Said Stretch: "They were big and fast and they hit and hit real hard. Real hard. But that was no excuse for throwing three interceptions."

It did leave a lasting impression. And Stretch hopes to return the favor tonight, when the Aztecs play Poly at Long Beach Veterans Stadium.

"I got some big-time redemption coming this week," Stretch said. "I want to come out and be a bulldog. I've really got to have a big game this week."

Stretch thinks he can, armed with the new offense.

Meek had Stretch in mind when he shifted his philosophy. He had an experienced quarterback with a good arm. But the main priority was still the running game.

Senior Dahrin Footman gained only 663 yards during the regular season a year ago. He had gained more than 1,000 as a sophomore.

"Dahrin would make the first guy miss, but there would be three others there to make the hit," Meek said. "There were nine defenders on the line. That's too many bodies."

Spreading the field has opened things up. Footman has already gained 550 yards this season. "Dahrin needs to get the ball 25 times a game," Meek said.

That's just fine with Stretch, who was ready to embrace an offense no matter how many carries it got for Footman.

"Like they say, the running game is a quarterback's best friend," Stretch said.

The Aztecs had always run the ball well, in fact the wing-T was good enough to win one Southern Section title and share another. But the time had come to change.

So committed was Meek to the new offense that he purchased a pitching machine--one that hurled footballs--to save his own arm during practice. Practices now begin with 30 minutes of pass patterns, supervised by Meek.

But by summer, about all Meek had was the machine.

During the Aztecs' spring game, Stretch called a quarterback draw. The defense adjusted. Stretch didn't.

He was slammed to the ground and suffered a broken collarbone.

"I gained six yards and then got drilled," Stretch said. "I guess I should have checked out of the play."

But the injury proved to be beneficial. Meek allowed Stretch to call plays for the freshman and junior varsity teams during summer passing leagues.

They would go over Stretch's strategy during the week.

"We were two guys together the whole summer," Stretch said. "I was a student."

He was a quarterback again late in the summer, leading the Aztecs to a third-place finish in the Chino passing league tournament.

Stretch carried that success into the opener. He completed 11 of 15 passes for 190 yards and three touchdowns in a 36-7 victory over Indio.

He rallied the Aztecs against Mater Dei the following week. The Monarchs had a 31-14 lead in the second half, but Stretch threw two touchdown passes to make it 31-28.

"With this offense, if we get a couple touchdowns behind, no one really cares," Meek said. "We can come back. We can score points. If we got a couple down with the wing-T, it's a struggle."

You don't need to remind Stretch of that. The Aztecs were down, 21-0, in the first quarter against Los Alamitos last season. They lost, 49-0.

Stretch was four of 15 for 30 yards and had two passes intercepted.

But that was a year ago. Stretch is winging it now instead of wing-T-ing it.

Los Angeles Times Articles