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Small World

St. Genevieve, Bell-Jeff football teams carry on with diminished numbers, play little big game tonight.


This is football at the bottom of the food chain.

Barely enough players to form a team. No goal posts or painted lines on the practice field.

St. Genevieve and Bellarmine-Jefferson high schools are in the same boat. They are small Catholic campuses with declining enrollments and few students who want to play football.

Yet their teams persevere. While most squads have at least 30 players, some as many as 80, St. Genevieve gets by with 18, the same players remaining on the field for offense, defense and kickoffs.

Same goes for Bell-Jeff, where team members recently went classroom to classroom beseeching friends to join them even though the season was well under way. Their numbers rose from 17 to 23, but the newcomers are inexperienced.

The players have a name for being undermanned. They call it "Ironman football."

Most weeks, that means losing football. The teams have a combined record of 1-5 this season.

Tonight, however, St. Genevieve and Bell-Jeff play each other at Burroughs High.

Tonight, the playing field seems a little more level.

So don't try telling them this isn't a big game.

St. Genevieve practices on a patch of grass about 70 yards long and 40 yards wide at the back corner of its Panorama City campus.

The players, coming off their third loss of the season, run through drills in smudged silver helmets and mismatched uniforms. Only 14 players are healthy enough to participate. Almost as many cheerleaders work on their routines nearby, a boom box thumping.

Coach Steve Page has half the offense--just the right side--against half the defense. Then the players switch, the left going against the right. Page yells "punt team" and everyone shuffles around again.

"I laugh when I see coaches complaining about having 28 or 30 players," Page said. "I have guys playing positions where we just have to throw them in there."

That explains why Sonny Sandel hesitates when asked what position he plays.

"Well, primarily it's cornerback," Sandel said. "But I also play six other positions."

Not far away, at another Catholic school in Sherman Oaks, the Notre Dame practice field bustles with more than a dozen coaches and 100 varsity and junior varsity players. A trainer and her assistants tend to rolls of tape, water bottles and a bucket of soft drinks. Scrimmages are videotaped.

There was a time when St. Genevieve had an illustrious football program. Erik Kramer, quarterback for the Chicago Bears, played there. The team won four consecutive league championships in the mid-1980s.

But enrollment has dipped several hundred to 381, and Page complains the new generation of students "seem to gravitate more toward basketball than football."

That leaves players such as Mario Melendez and Edward Jaime, running backs on a team that was held to 21 yards in 40 carries in a 34-0 loss to Santa Clara last week.

"We see bigger guys, bigger schools all the time," said Melendez, a senior running back. "Sometimes we're intimidated. . . ."

Jaime, a sophomore, finishes the thought. "But it's a mind game," he said. "You just have to be more focused."

Near the end of practice, the players crowd around a garden hose that is attached to a pipe, water squirting out of several holes. No sooner have they taken a drink than Page is calling them back.

They hit the blocking sled five at a time. They are tired, heads down while they wait their turns.

"I don't hear any clapping," Page yells. "I hear some clapping, maybe we can get out of here."

Bell-Jeff won last week, its sixth victory in three-plus seasons. The Guards (1-2) won, 54-20, over Campbell Hall, a team that switched from eight-man to 11-man football this fall.

"It was a relief," Coach Ken Berry said. "We realized we could play for four quarters."

If it's tough to practice with an undersized team, it's even tougher once the game starts, Berry said.

Suppose the other team employs an unusual blitz. Normally, the coach shows his offensive linemen diagrams and adjustments while the defense is on the field. But Berry's offense is his defense. His linemen never come out of the game.

"The coaches just yell from the sideline," said Richard Tobias, a running back and cornerback.

Added Carlos Trujillo, a fullback and safety: "They've got good lungs. But if it's a really big change, we have to use a timeout."

Preparation is crucial. Because the Burbank campus has no field, the team practices in the outfield of a baseball diamond at a public park several miles away. With no goal posts, the field-goal kicker simply tries to aim straight.

All around, people are using the park. A man walks his dog. A boy throws rocks. Some teenagers arrive with a baseball bat and tennis balls and hit fly balls that sometimes bounce into the Bell-Jeff drills.

Berry and his two assistants must keep the players focused on the task at hand.

"Defensive tackles!" assistant coach Brian Adams barks. "Any time the guard pulls, you have to be in his hip pocket."

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