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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | ERIC SONDHEIMER

Safety Jones Has Come On Strong for Granada Hills

November 25, 1998|ERIC SONDHEIMER

Months ago, before the first tackle was made, before the first predictions on player abilities were offered and before any college recruiters even heard of Gerald Jones, the initial clues identifying him as the region's most underrated player began to emerge.

"I had heard from some people he was a hitter," co-coach Darryl Stroh of Granada Hills High said. "The first day you get in pads, you go through tackling drills, and he was one of the best. Some people can have physical talent and not know where the ball is. He has a radar to know where the action is."

Playing strong safety, the 6-foot, 175-pound Jones became the most dominant defensive player in the Northwest Valley Conference this season. He stripped balls from receivers, jarred balls loose from running backs, sacked quarterbacks, picked off passes and intimidated opponents as if he were the Jack Tatum of the 1970s.

This is a senior who no one knew about before the season because Granada Hills went 1-9 last year, and players on bad teams get overlooked.

"He must have been invisible," Coach Dave Lertzman of Birmingham said. "All you had to do is see him once on video and you knew he was a great player."

Granada Hills (11-0) hosts Westchester tonight in a City Championship quarterfinal playoff game, and it's time for Jones to receive the respect he deserves.

What other strong safety has produced numbers like this: 86 tackles, six sacks, five fumble recoveries, five interceptions.

"He's as good as any I've had," Stroh said.

Just look at Jones' dedication. Five days a week, he rises at 5:11 a.m. to ride a bus from his home near Manual Arts High for the trip to Granada Hills, and doesn't return until 7:30 p.m. at the earliest.

He has been playing tackle football since he was 6 and a member of the Northridge Knights. He's quiet and so respectful he didn't want to sit in Stroh's chair in the physical education office during an interview for fear it wasn't permitted.

He doesn't care about individual recognition.

"As long as we have somebody on the team they [opponents] can be scared of, that's all that matters," he said. "Whether that's me, Peter [Gunny], Jason [Winn], Josh [Brandon]."

Jones is always in the right place at the right time, making him everybody's most underrated player.

And he's not alone. Here's a look at other unsung players filling critical roles in the playoffs:

* Ricky Jacobs, Notre Dame, punter. Following in the tradition of former All-American Chris Sailer, Jacobs is averaging 43.1 yards per punt. Last week against Long Beach Wilson, three of his punts were downed inside the five-yard line.

"He's done a great job, especially in the biggest games he's had his most critical kicks," Coach Kevin Rooney said. "It's pretty tough to replace somebody like Sailer, but in terms of his punting, he's done as well as anybody we've had."

* Bryson Atkins, Alemany, free safety. He came to Alemany known for his basketball skills. He has five interceptions, directs the secondary and plays wide receiver.

* Scott Ellis, Ventura, defensive back. How's this for a game? On Friday night against Newbury Park, Ellis accounted for 17 points by making a 39-yard touchdown catch, kicking five extra points and two field goals.

* Brandon Mackabee, Hart, defensive end. At 5-9, 175 pounds, Mackabee has 72 tackles and six sacks. Kyle Boller can't do everything.

* Mike Sharp, Joel Garcia, Kevin Carden, Crespi, linebackers. This trio helped pull off the upset of the playoffs, when the Celts beat unbeaten Littlerock, 17-7, last week.

"Sharp is real good at picking up the play," Coach Tim Lins said. "Garcia is an aggressive tackler and Carden is a good athlete who gets to the ball well."

The next challenge is tailback Manuel White of Valencia.

* Robert Van Norden, Harvard-Westlake, linebacker. He's the lead blocker for tailback George Witter, who has rushed for 1,372 yards. When he gets the rare opportunity to run, Van Norden is averaging 11.0 yards per carry. He also has 41 unassisted tackles. "His uniform is dirty when he finishes a game," Coach Dave Bennett said.

* Kaelen Jakes, Valencia, defensive end. This 6-3, 220-pound sophomore had three sacks against Crescenta Valley. He plays as if he has unlimited energy and is in constant attack mode. Jakes will never be considered underrated again in his high school career.

* Eric Ceja, Reseda, free safety. With seven interceptions, 40 tackles and five touchdown receptions, plus serving as holder on extra points and kicking off, Ceja is a key contributor for the Regents. "In over 30 years of coaching, he absolutely has made the most improvement I have ever seen in a player from one year to the next," Coach Joel Schaeffer said.

* Gilbert Sandoval, Sylmar, tackle. The 6-1, 285-pound junior didn't play football last season but is a two-way starter. "He's played phenomenally," Coach Jeff Engilman said. "We call him 'Babe' because he looks like Babe Ruth."

* Lyle Everett, Chaminade, quarterback. A year ago, Chaminade had trouble scoring touchdowns, let alone completing a pass. The unheralded Everett has ignited the offense with 1,658 yards passing and 16 touchdowns.

*

Eric Sondheimer's local column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422.

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