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FOOTBALL '98: VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY

Tarnished Legacy

Once a football powerhouse, Santa Clara High has fallen on hard times in recent years, with little relief in sight.

September 03, 1998|TRIS WYKES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OXNARD — Michael Moon wants to be just another player on the Moorpark College football team. An undersized safety, he's trying to make a contribution to one of the best junior college programs in the region.

But it's tough to blend in when you're the butt of teammates' ribbing.

"Jokes are always being made about my [high] school," said Moon, a 1997 Santa Clara High graduate whose old team was 1-19 in two years. "They say nobody good ever went to Santa Clara. How could anyone good come from an 0-10 team?"

That's the picture the Saints bring to mind: a downtrodden program facing a bleak future. It's an image that blots out a glorious past.

During the 17-year reign of Coach Lou Cvijanovich in the 1960s and '70s, the Saints won seven Frontier League titles and never finished lower than second. They captured Southern Section division titles in 1963 and 1965.

Ten years ago, Santa Clara advanced to the Southern Section Division VIII quarterfinals. The next season, the Saints, led by quarterback Tim Gutierrez, reached the division semifinals. There was little hint of the troubles ahead.

As Santa Clara prepares for its season opener Sept. 11 at Santa Maria St. Joseph, the team has not won a league game since it defeated Santa Paula on Oct. 21, 1994, a string of 14 games. It has not qualified for the playoffs since Gutierrez graduated and has not won more than two games in a season since 1991.

"People ask me where I went to school and I say, 'Santa Clara,' and they say 'Boy, those guys are having trouble,' " said Gutierrez, the offensive coordinator at St. Bonaventure, a rival Catholic school in Ventura. "I don't know what to say about it. It's sad."

Plummeting enrollment is the main reason for the decline of Santa Clara football. The school, which in the late 1980s had more than 800 students, still had 600 students in 1994.

When classes began this month, 273 students were enrolled.

Santa Clara administrators blame economics and competition for Santa Clara's shrinking size, citing the school's location in a depressed south Oxnard neighborhood and the allure of more modern facilities at Oxnard High's new campus, which opened in 1995.

Moreover, a parade of seven coaches in the last 10 years hasn't helped attract football players to Santa Clara. By the time the Saints hit bottom with an 0-10 record in 1996, they were practicing with 12 players and using garbage cans to simulate opponents' formations.

Dick Weber, a Santa Clara football standout in the early 1960s and the team's co-coach in 1994-95, said he looks for Santa Clara results with trepidation.

"You open the paper very gingerly and go, 'Oh God, how bad was it?' " he said. "

Glory Days

Lou Cvijanovich sighs.

"This is going to make me sound egotistical," he said. "But I think if I were still the football coach [at Santa Clara], we would still have a lot of kids coming to school to play football."

It works for the Saint boys' basketball team, which Cvijanovich has guided to 29 league titles and 14 Southern Section championships in 40 years as coach.

When Cvijanovich coached the football team at Santa Clara, the program flourished. The Saints played to packed stands at the old Oxnard High and were trailed by rooter buses and carloads of supporters when at away games.

Before home games on Saturday nights, the players, attired in sports jackets and school ties, ate pregame meals at Rolly's restaurant on Oxnard Boulevard.

"All the townspeople would meet us there to pick up the tab," Cvijanovich said.

Larry Lawrence, who coached Santa Clara to the 1989 Southern Section semifinals, became a die-hard Saint football fan when he moved to Oxnard in 1962. He missed only a handful of games in the following 25 years but hasn't seen the team play since he resigned after the 1990 season.

"People just kind of shake their heads in disbelief now because Santa Clara was a power and it was the place to go," Lawrence said.

Lawrence's youngest son, Ted, was a co-captain and the center on the 1989 Santa Clara team. He and Gutierrez, the quarterback, have remained friends. As boys, both shared a dream to play for Santa Clara.

"Anything that had to do with Santa Clara football I wanted to be a part of," said Ted Lawrence, a Ventura College assistant coach whose brother, Tim, was a Saint quarterback who graduated in 1981. "I used to watch my brother play and hope one day people would watch me play for Santa Clara."

Gutierrez used to run around the house wearing his older brother Kenny's Santa Clara helmet.

"I started playing football when I was 9 because I dreamed about playing for Santa Clara," said Tim Gutierrez, who left the school as Ventura County's all-time passing leader and third on the Southern Section career list with 7,521 yards.

Santa Clara was undefeated in league play in 1988-89, posting an overall record of 21-4 in those seasons. Gutierrez went on to start for San Diego State and now coaches at St. Bonaventure with Kwinn Knight, a former classmate and running back at Santa Clara.

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