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Civil Wars

Rivalry Games Bring Out Best and Worst of High School Football

October 23, 1998|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You should hear them talk trash at the Church on the Way.

The Van Nuys congregation happens to include several players from the football squads at Los Angeles Baptist and Village Christian high schools.

There was no turning the other cheek when L.A. Baptist's Jason French ran into Village Christian's John Lawson outside church, days before their annual "Bible Bowl" game tonight.

"We're going to kill you guys," French said.

Lawson just laughed.

This is the stuff of rivalries, the games that get the blood boiling, the grudge matches that evoke the best, and sometimes worst, in high school football. A number of such battles will be fought throughout the region this weekend.

Notre Dame at Crespi. Granada Hills at Kennedy. Westlake at Thousand Oaks.

"It's the biggest week of the whole year," running back Blake Tibbetts of Crespi said. "Everyone is so fired up and the atmosphere around practice is so much better. This is what you play for."

Players have heard pep talks from coaches and urgings from classmates in the hallway. At Crespi, the offense practiced against a scout team dressed in Notre Dame-like gold pants.

"There is a time-honored history of the football rivalry," said Leonard Zaichkowsky, a Boston University professor who is president of the Assn. for the Advancement of Applied Sports Psychology. "These are very special games."

Zaichkowsky sees them as a natural extension of America's competitive nature.

"We're socialized into competition at a very young age in this country," he said. "It's generally a positive thing because it motivates us to be our best."

With football, it most often takes the form of an old-fashioned turf war between schools whose campuses are too close for comfort.

For many years, Westlake and Thousand Oaks shared a stadium. The campuses have always drawn kids from the same neighborhoods.

Defensive back Joey Casillas of Thousand Oaks grew up with a number of Westlake players. No way he wants to lose to guys who will be celebrating in his community, on his streets.

"I see them around town," Casillas said. "We hang around the same parties."

Ten miles of citrus and avocado orchards separate Santa Paula from Fillmore, but even that's not enough to quell the rivalry between the neighboring schools that have played each other since 1924.

Granada Hills and Kennedy have some history, too. The Kennedy players know their school opened in 1971 to ease crowded conditions at Granada Hills.

"We took half our students from them," linebacker Jason Newman of Kennedy said. "Nobody wanted to be at Kennedy. They wanted to stay in their own school."

Newman carries this bit of knowledge like a chip on his shoulder. He hears it from classmates who have been telling him all week: "You guys better beat Granada."

For L.A. Baptist and Village Christian, the common ground is religion rather than geography. Many players attend either the Church on the Way or Grace Community Church in Sun Valley.

"A lot of our kids are in the same youth groups," Coach Mike Plaisance of Village Christian said. "These kids grew up together."

But it took more than familiarity to breed contempt between the teams. The competitive flames were stoked by a series of last-second finishes in recent seasons.

In 1992, Village Christian's Tarik Blair returned a kickoff 99 yards in the final minute to give the Crusaders a 21-19 victory and the Alpha League championship.

A few years later, L.A. Baptist drove 83 yards with four minutes remaining to win, 21-14, and recapture the league title.

"It's just one of those games," said Coach Mark Bates of L.A. Baptist, who played for Village Christian in the early 1980s. "The kids tend to play better and the coaches tend to coach better."

Said Plaisance: "The fans have come to expect that they will be treated to a good ball game."

Close scores are a crucial ingredient in the making of a grudge match. The best games involve teams that are always battling for the league or conference title.

"You don't have rivalries if one team is dominant all the time," co-Coach Darryl Stroh of Granada Hills said. "It should be a game where you have to work a little harder."

There are exceptions. Moorpark harbored a one-sided rivalry against Carpinteria, a team it could not beat for an astounding 62 years and 51 games. "The Streak," which ended with a 33-0 Moorpark victory last season, became a community obsession.

When emotions run so high, rivalries can sometimes show their ugly side. There is a danger that players, coaches and fans will cross the line of acceptable behavior.

"It has to be kept in perspective," Zaichkowsky said. "You can be very emotionally involved, but you have to respect good sportsmanship."

In 1977, seven defensive starters from Kennedy were caught vandalizing the Granada Hills campus the night before the game. They were suspended, leaving an inexperienced defense to face a Granada Hills quarterback by the name of John Elway.

Granada Hills won, 28-13, but Stroh took no pleasure in the circumstances of the victory.

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