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Valley / Ventura County Sports

Double Trouble at Rio Mesa

Football: Instead of causing problems off the field, Mack and Stevens take it out on opponents.

October 30, 1998|TRIS WYKES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OXNARD — Kevin Mack and Jerome Stevens drive to school each day in a gray Volvo sedan, a battered hand-me-down from Mack's mother.

A stylish ride the car is not, but it allows the inseparable friends and Rio Mesa High football teammates some freedom and mobility. Those who know them can only hope the seniors have finally chosen to head in the right direction.

Rio Mesa (2-5, 1-1 in Pacific League play) hosts neighboring Camarillo (5-2, 1-0) in a league game tonight. Despite the Spartans' lackluster record, Mack, a defensive tackle, and Stevens, a middle linebacker, have emerged as two of Ventura County's best players.

Until this year, they were better known as two of the school's most troublesome students.

"I just had a lot of hatred in me and I wanted to express my feelings on somebody," Stevens said.

Said Mack, a highly regarded college prospect: "We got in our fair share of trouble, but it wasn't nobody's fault but ours."

Stevens said his unhappiness led to drug use, two arrests for theft and other run-ins with the law. He and Mack were repeatedly in trouble at Rio Mesa for skipping class, fighting and disruptive behavior in class during their first three years at the school.

The unruliness affected what could have been productive football careers. Stevens sat out his sophomore season because of academic ineligibility and Mack was considered a loose cannon by his coaches. Neither player could accept criticism or be counted on for a strong performance, said Coach George Contreras.

"They weren't nominated for all-league last year because they didn't deserve it," said Contreras, whose dedication to a two-platoon system has thus far outweighed the temptation to use Mack and Stevens on offense.

"With Jerome, you never knew if he would be able to play until Friday night because he was always running the risk of being suspended [from school]," Contreras said. "Kevin made a lot of big plays that stood out, but he didn't make the routine ones."

This season, Mack and Stevens have become team leaders, made plays and left a positive impression on opposing coaches.

"Jerome is a man playing with boys, but he's a first-class guy, too," said Coach Jon Mack of St. Bonaventure, whose team plays Rio Mesa in summer passing league tournaments. "He's a kid you can put up in front of people and say here's what we represent."

Kevin Mack, who said he has been offered recruiting visits by USC, Washington and Arizona among others, left his mark against Buena in a nonleague game.

"My son had the unenviable task of trying to block Mack on the punt team," Buena Coach Rick Scott said. "Jake came back to the sideline looking out his [helmet's] earhole and saying the guy was a truck."

Against Oxnard last week, Mack, 6 feet 2 and 225 pounds, was moved from end to tackle in an attempt to shore up the Spartans' run defense. He recorded a sack, forced and recovered a fumble and was enough of an intimidating force that Oxnard fumbled five center-quarterback exchanges.

In the same game, Stevens made 12 tackles, despite Oxnard passing 28 times in 48 plays.

Stevens, 6 feet and 245 pounds, entered high school physically mature. But emotional problems led to a series of personal and legal pitfalls.

"I was really hoping he would see the light and get off the drugs and stop the stealing," said Myisha Stevens, Jerome's stepmother. "It really hurt his father and I. We told him the road he was going down, he was going to be either in jail or dead."

Meanwhile, Mack's potential was being undermined by his uninspired play and a penchant for trash talk and penalties. Then last summer, he posted a Ventura County-record time of 4.0 seconds in the shuttle run at the county recruiting combine and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds at another combine.

College coaches began contacting Contreras and SuperPrep Magazine ranked Mack the No. 26 senior linebacker in the nation. He has 34 tackles, three sacks and has blocked four kicks while punting for a 38.5-yard average.

Stevens has made 95 tackles and his aggressiveness and physique have earned him points with recruiters from Washington, Colorado State and Utah State. But neither player has earned a qualifying SAT score, somewhat limiting their attractiveness to college programs.

The test scores are one more hurdle which Mack and Stevens must overcome. But the depths from which they've climbed give them confidence for the future.

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