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Valley Follows Losing Path to the Big Dance

City Section: Sylmar, Taft are best bets this season to end region's futility in 4-A Division championship game.


The road to the City Section 4-A Division title doesn't always lead through the South Bay, but that doesn't mean teams from the San Fernando Valley have had any more success in becoming champion.

The field of contenders has slowly expanded since Carson High or Banning won 11 consecutive titles from 1976-86. But only two Valley teams--Sylmar and Granada Hills--have been able to wrest the title from the Southern Pacific Conference.

Nobody knows this better than Taft Coach Troy Starr.

The Toreadors are the latest Valley school to make a run in the 4-A playoffs. Taft has been undefeated entering the title game at the Coliseum the last two years, only to be turned away each time by San Pedro.

In 1996, Taft lost, 22-20. A photo of the Coliseum scoreboard hung in Taft's locker room all year. It didn't help. San Pedro again beat the Toreadors last season, 24-9.

"The first one was tougher," Starr said. "You couldn't tell me even after the game that we weren't as good as they were."

Starr's disappointment showed. He was so emotionally drained after the 1996 game, he couldn't talk to his team immediately afterward.

Many factors come into play in the development of a championship team, but none are more important than talent and luck.

And the Valley has generally come up short.

"Yes, we have talent," Starr said. "But what people sometimes don't realize in the Valley is the schools over the hill have more. If somebody gets hurt, another guy steps right in. We don't have that."

Since the creation of the 4-A Division in 1975, teams from the Valley have won the major-division title four times. San Fernando won the first in 1975, Granada Hills upset Carson in 1987 and Sylmar is the only Valley team to earn the title this decade, winning in 1992 and 1994.

The Valley has had more success than the rest of the City Section outside of the Southern Pacific Conference. Teams from the Southeastern, Northern and Coastal conferences have yet to make it to a title game.

Some teams have the talent. In 1995, Kennedy cruised through the Northwest Valley Conference, stayed healthy and reached the semifinals with a 12-0 record.

But the Golden Cougars' luck ran out. They faced Dorsey, which simply had more talent. Nine of the Dons' 11 starters on defense are playing Division I football. Kennedy kept up for a half, before losing, 41-19. It was the third semifinal loss in nine years for the Golden Cougars.

"Going into the season, I thought that team, and two others, might have had a chance," Kennedy Coach Bob Francola said. "Right now, I just want a chance to get to the final, feel what that's like."

In the 1996 final, Taft had just taken the lead late in the third quarter when San Pedro tried a long pass. The ball slipped through the hands of defensive back Keith Johnson, right to wide receiver Tim O'Donnell, who scored to put the Pirates up for good.

It's not a stretch to say if Johnson had made the interception, the Toreadors would have won their first City title.

Sylmar has had its share of luck--good and bad. In 1992, the Spartans made their first title-game appearance against Carson, which had been in 10 of the previous 11 finals.

Sylmar appeared overmatched, until the Colts decided to run through Sylmar's warmup formation before the game at El Camino College.

"I couldn't have asked for anything better," Sylmar Coach Jeff Engilman said. "That one act gave them more motivation. They didn't care that they were supposed to be intimidated."

Sylmar won, 17-0.

Two years later, the Spartans had an easy time in a 38-6 victory over Crenshaw, which was 12-1 but making its first 4-A final appearance since 1982.

But in 1993, Sylmar lost to Carson in the semifinals, 22-21, on a last-minute touchdown and two-point conversion. Two years later, the same thing happened in the quarterfinals against Narbonne, 22-21.

"We could have had four championships in a row," Engilman said. "But luck plays into it."

One team that didn't fit the blueprint of a City champion was Granada Hills in 1987. The Highlanders made wholesale changes after losing three early season games, including a blowout to Carson.

"We had an entire defensive line that I don't think played again," co-coach Darryl Stroh said. "We just had to make some changes."

Something clicked. Granada Hills defeated Carson, ranked second in the nation, 27-14, for the 4-A title. The upset broke the string of consecutive titles won by the Colts and Banning and signaled the beginning of the end for the South Bay dynasty.

Now, especially because of open enrollment, there's much more parity.

"There's probably now five or six teams that have a legitimate chance," Engilman said.

But the distribution of talent has been more beneficial to Southern Pacific Conference schools. Dorsey won titles in 1989, 1991 and 1995.

San Pedro has won the last two and every team except Gardena has been to the 4-A playoffs the last two years.

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