ANAHEIM — It was a well-known fact in the neighborhood of aging, single-family homes surrounding Magnolia High: If you like to play football, don't become a Sentinel, unless you like to lose.
For as long as anyone can remember, Magnolia has been woeful in football. The school, founded in 1961, has had one winning season since 1966.
The Sentinels are 14-58-1 this decade.
"Our reputation for football was not good," said Anthony Zaragoza, Magnolia's senior quarterback. "Our [past] record speaks for itself."
To the surprise of just about everyone except Zaragoza and his boyhood football buddies, who made a pact to stay at Magnolia through thick or thin, the Sentinels take a 3-0 record into Saturday night's nonleague game against Pacifica (2-0-1) at Western High.
Things had been so bad for so long at Magnolia that coaches quit keeping records, Athletic Director Rick Penn said. The last time the team made the playoffs, most of the current players hadn't even started kindergarten.
That was in 1985, when Magnolia (7-4) finished tied with Brea Olinda for third place in the Orange League. The Sentinels received a Central Conference wild-card berth, but lost to Newport Harbor, 42-21, in the first round of the playoffs.
"We know this is probably the best team Magnolia has had for a long time," Zaragoza said of the 1997 Sentinels. "Maybe will have for a long time."
Zaragoza, at 6-3, 185 pounds, is a converted defensive back and clearly the team leader. His presence, on and off the field, has been credited with holding together a group of 12 returning starters, most of whom have been at the school all four years.
"Anthony is our leader," said Zaragoza's cousin, Johnathan Parsons, a defensive lineman. "That's what he brings to the team."
Magnolia has won seven of its last 13 games. The Sentinels finished 4-6 in 1996, when they stumbled in Orange League play and finished in a last place tie with Savanna. Magnolia did, however, come from behind to upset league champion Valencia, 19-17.
Magnolia Coach Bill Friedrich, who was very successful at Bellflower St. John Bosco in the mid-1980s, has cautioned the team that the 1997 season is still young.
"We don't always handle success here, so we're trying to keep this thing somewhat low-key," he said.
An inkling of what was to come surfaced last season. Friedrich was pleased with the varsity's performance and the junior varsity finished 9-1. When practice began in August, every player Friedrich expected to return did. Zaragoza said it was not uncommon in the past for players to spend a year or two in the lower ranks at Magnolia and then transfer to another school.
Parsons, a 6-2, 285-pound senior who previously attended L.A. Fairfax High, was the first significant transfer into Magnolia. But the center of attention is Zaragoza, whom Friedrich has allowed to call the plays.
Zaragoza has accounted for 748 yards in total yardage this season. In last week's 38-15 victory over Fullerton, Zaragoza rushed for three touchdowns and passed for two more.
Zaragoza remembers playing on the freshman team when the Sentinels went 0-10. He said he was buoyed by the fact his teammates and the coaching staff never got down about their record, and that gave him resolve to keep the team together.
"We were supposed to go out and have fun," he said. "The coaches told us to do the best we can and they always backed us up on the field."
A starting varsity defensive back as a sophomore, Zaragoza split time last season between wide receiver and quarterback, and he passed for 786 yards and a touchdown. There was never a question whether Zaragoza could operate the option attack. He has the size and is a fine runner. But his passing, he admits, needs work.
Many of the county's best quarterbacks have private trainers who specialize in throwing mechanics, but not Zaragoza. Instead, he worked hard in off-season passing leagues and has demonstrated a strong arm in his first three games, completing 15 of 33 passes for 393 yards. Friedrich points out that at least 10 passes have been dropped.
"We haven't settled on a go-to [receiver] yet," Friedrich said.
Meanwhile, Zaragoza is enjoying the Sentinels' success.
"We're like one big family now," Zaragoza said. "With the seniors, there's more leadership than in past years. We all trust each other. Most of us have been together for four years. It's time for us to do something."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
PACIFICA VS. MAGNOLIA
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Western High
Records: Pacifica 2-0-1, Magnolia 3-0
Rankings: Pacifica is No. 8 in the Southern Section Division VIII rankings. Magnolia is unranked.
Noteworthy: This one figures to be close, low scoring and most likely won in the trenches. A key could be Pacifica kicker Jon Guenther, who has a county-high six field goals. Magnolia's option attack is led by quarterback Anthony Zaragoza. Sophomore running back Will Speer is averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Pacifica has won twice since being tied by Woodbridge, 10-10, in its season opener. Quarterback Matt Reis has completed 26 of 52 passes for 299 yards, and running back Louie Ala has rushed for 203 yards.