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David and Goliath

Garden Grove League Football Teams Can Play With the Best of Them, but They Get Little Respect From Opponents

November 03, 1998|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Roger Takahashi knew some people around the county didn't have the highest regard for the Garden Grove League. But he didn't realize how bad the situation was until he applied for a job outside the league.

Takahashi had taken La Quinta to the Southern Section Division VI championship game in December 1989, but that accomplishment didn't hold much weight with those interviewing him for the El Toro head coaching position in the spring of 1990.

"I don't remember the specific question, but the gist of it was, how could someone from the Garden Grove League make the jump up to that level," Takahashi said. "The hypocrisy of it was that their previous head coach, Bob Johnson, had been a head coach at Los Amigos, a Garden Grove League school.

"I thought to myself, 'Is football that different in the Garden Grove League?' If anything, it takes more talent to coach in the Garden Grove League because there are fewer athletes at your school. You have to be more innovative to cover those spots. That was a very enlightening experience for me."

It's an experience that doesn't surprise coaches and administrators in the Garden Grove League, who have long believed that their league hasn't been given proper respect. Many Garden Grove League veterans believe the lack of respect begins with football, the most visible sport, and extends to others. Whether their claim is legitimate or only perceived, it is nonetheless a burden carried by many in the Garden Grove League.

Santiago senior Joe Gonzalez, a three-year starter at offensive tackle, said he wonders what his school has to change its image.

"The worst part of it is when we play a nonleague game," he said. "When you walk on to the field and you say, 'You know these guys don't respect us. That they're going to kick our butts.' And after we walk off the field with a victory, it seems like people are saying, 'Well that team wasn't that good if Santiago beat them.' All we can do is go play our best and hope somebody notices."

Pacifica football Coach Bill Craven said he hasn't noticed that the league isn't being respected, but he does think part of the league's image problem relates to its lack of parity.

"It's become a top-heavy and bottom-heavy league," said Craven, who has been head coach at Pacifica for 23 years. "I think all other leagues are pretty balanced where your bottom teams play better against your top teams. In our league, that hasn't always been the situation."

For the last five years, Pacifica, Los Amigos and Rancho Alamitos have dominated the Garden Grove League. The bottom dwellers have been La Quinta, Santiago, Bolsa Grande and Garden Grove.

"Before that, it was almost reversed," Craven said. "We just have never had a cycle where all the teams were competitive."

But this season comes close. Only Garden Grove and Bolsa Grande have losing records. The other five teams all have a shot at the playoffs.

Jim Perry, longtime athletic director at La Quinta and an ardent defender of the GGL, said the league's image problem has bothered him for some time.

"I'm baffled by the lack of respect we get, especially considering the number of good athletes we've produced," Perry said. "I'm told some people think we're in our own little world because we have seven teams [all members of the Garden Grove Unified School District]. There's only one other league like ours--the Freeway League [composed of teams/schools from the Fullerton Joint Union High School District]--but you don't hear people speak of that league in the terms they use for this one. We just have to show people that we can play."

Every year, Garden Grove League teams seem to do a pretty good job of that. Already this season, Pacifica, a Division IX team, has beaten second-ranked Bell Gardens and Rancho Alamitos has defeated Lakewood Mayfair, ranked seventh in Division IX.

Championship Drought

The Garden Grove League hasn't won a section football championship since Bolsa Grande took the Central Conference in 1986, but it has had three runners-up in the last six years--Pacifica in 1996, and Rancho Alamitos in 1992 and '93. The league also has had its share of impressive playoff runs, most notably Pacifica's in 1996. The Mariners finished fourth in league, entered the playoffs as a wild-card team, then upset third-seeded Laguna Hills in the first round and advanced to the Division VIII title game, losing to top-seeded Aliso Niguel, which finished the season undefeated.

Last year, Rancho Alamitos, then a Division VIII team--pulled off one of the Garden Grove League's biggest regular-season victories. It routed Esperanza, a Division I power, 38-14, on Esperanza's home field.

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