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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Mirror Images

Newbury Park and Westlake have developed elite passing attacks to achieve prominence.

October 15, 1998|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is a credible explanation why two teams that total 800 yards of offense each week hunker down for a mighty defensive struggle most times they meet.

It's about mirrors. About looking across the line and seeing yourself in another uniform and sensing what is about to take place.

Newbury Park and Westlake high schools pass to set up the run, pass on any down and distance, pass regardless of the score. Sometimes it seems they pass just to pass the time.

Most opponents must make radical defensive adjustments that invariably cost them dearly. Coaches flood the field with defensive backs, resulting in a 5-foot-9, 150-pound second-stringer covering an all-league receiver. Fearsome linebackers are reduced to spectators, helplessly watching objects fly over their heads like someone living near an airport.

The Panthers and Warriors, owners of the best aerial schemes this side of Hart, feast on opponents' unfamiliarity.

Until they face one another. Then it's the same old, same old. Their defenses simply prepare for what their own offenses run every day at practice.

Result? Newbury Park's victories over Westlake since 1995 are by scores of 20-7, 18-7 and 22-15. Westlake won, 28-7, in '94. An aberration was Westlake's 32-31 victory in 1996.

Said Westlake Coach Jim Benkert: "They do what we do, so the kids are not preparing for the unexpected."

Said Newbury Park Coach George Hurley: "We know each other real well. At the end of the season, we take a month off and begin figuring out how to beat Westlake."

No wonder. Newbury Park has won four of the last six Marmonte League championships. Westlake won in 1994 and has reached the playoffs the last five years.

Once again, the winner of their game tonight at 7 at Westlake will have a leg up in the league. Westlake is 5-0, 1-0 in Marmonte play, and ranked No. 1 in the region by The Times. Sixth-ranked Newbury Park has won four in a row--including its two league games--since a 31-28 loss to Sahuaro, Ariz.

"We're looking forward to this game, we're fired up," said Ryan Shipton, Newbury Park's running back. "They are a lot like us. We both seem to do things differently than most teams."

The way Kitty Hawk was never the same after the Wright brothers took to the air, Marmonte League football forever changed when Hurley and Benkert took over as coaches in 1989.

Their thought processes at the time mirrored one another the way their offenses do today: We have small, quick linemen who can't line up and play power football. We need an alternative. We will throw the ball and keep throwing it.

Evolution came slowly. Benkert went through a trick-play phase. Hurley couldn't quite bring himself to abandon Newbury Park's traditional power attack.

Until 1991. Hurley and offensive coordinator Gary Fabricius realized sophomore quarterback Keith Smith's skills needed to be showcased. Benkert's quarterback was John Snyder, whose strong right arm has since propelled the pitcher into the starting rotation of the Chicago White Sox.

Victories began piling up and records fell.

At Westlake, the top 10 single-season leaders in receiving yards and eight of the top 10 in passing yards have come in the Benkert era.

At Newbury Park, the top 15 single-season leaders in receiving yards and eight of the top 11 in passing yards have come in the Hurley era.

Once in flight, many players continued to soar. Two walls in the Westlake coaches' office are plastered with photos of alumni who played or still play college football, a list of 28 headed by USC receiver Billy Miller and UCLA fullback Craig Walendy.

The same is true of Newbury Park. Smith, a quarterback at Arizona, is the most high-profile member of a group of college players that includes six Panther receivers from the last three seasons.

The pictures on the wall are like mirrors. Today's players see themselves in their predecessors.

"It's like those guys are leading the way for us," said Travis Campbell, a senior Westlake receiver and defensive back. "Their success makes college football a realistic goal. It's not like it's a fantasy."

However, legacy brings expectations--and pressure.

"The fact that we were in the preseason state rankings was the work of the teams before this one," Benkert said. "This team has a lot to live up to."

Scrawled on a chalkboard across the room from the Westlake alumni photos is this: "9 Sacks. Do Not Erase This!!"

The message reminds the Warriors to live in the present and to improve on last week, when quarterback Zac Wasserman was brought to the turf nine times in a 28-7 victory over Royal.

Newbury Park, led by linebacker Anthony Foli, will aggressively seek sacks.

Panther quarterback Nick Czernek is more mobile than Wasserman and has been sacked only six times. However, Czernek's timing with his receivers is lacking and he has had 12 passes intercepted to Wasserman's one.

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