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FOOTBALL '98: VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY

Second Time Around

Ready or Not, Canyons Begins First Football Season in 17 Years With Enthusiasm and Questions

September 03, 1998|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VALENCIA — If you rebuild it, they will come.

College of the Canyons did, and players have.

With Canyons poised to play its first football game in 17 years on Sept. 12 at Desert, the only remaining question is, how quickly will the program progress?

"I don't know, I really don't," said Chuck Lyon, hired in January as coach. "We're practicing hard and I think we'll be fine. But it's unknown. We have never seen any of these kids play in college."

Regardless, the rebirth of Canyons' program, canceled in 1981 because of budgetary problems, is the talk of junior college football in the region.

Just how competitive the Cougars will be this season is debatable.

Sixty-five of Canyons' 68 players will be freshmen on the field, and many on the roster did not play football last season. Lyon also notes that, unlike his coaching rivals, he has little film to scrutinize and no luxury of evaluating returning players.

"You can watch them play in practice," Lyon said. "But some players are good practice players who can't handle the pressure of being in a game. We might not know how good we are until the fourth or fifth game."

Observers remark that Lyon has exceeded recruiting expectations and point to his organizational skills and track record as a coach.

Lyon, 42, spent 11 seasons as offensive coordinator at Pasadena City College and one at Long Beach City College. He served as head coach at Pasadena in 1995.

"From what I've been hearing, they might do a lot better than people think," Glendale Coach John Cicuto said. "They've got some good kids there that are going to give it a good jump-start. You won't see them struggle. They're not going to be the traditional first-year program."

Tradition had much to do with resurrecting a program in a community where football allegiances are strong but divided between four high schools.

Impassioned efforts by the College of the Canyons Foundation, the school's fund-raising arm, resulted in a campaign to raise the necessary $200,000 in start-up costs after resumption of the program was approved by the Santa Clarita Community College board of trustees in May 1997.

The money, earmarked for expansion of the athletic program, also funded the formation of a women's soccer team and extensive improvement of facilities.

Lyon, a former Canyons quarterback who scored the first touchdown in the school's stadium in 1974 and a 24-year Santa Clarita Valley resident, describes his position as a "dream job."

Among Lyon's assistants is Joey Charles, a former Canyons running back. Among his supporters is Mike Herrington, coach at Hart High and an an offensive lineman at Canyons in 1976, when Lyon was a Cougar assistant.

Herrington said he plans to forgo his routine of scouting an opponent on Sept. 26 in order to attend Canyons' home opener against Compton.

"I wouldn't miss it for the world," Herrington said. "Being an ex-player, I hated to see [the program canceled]. But it will be a good rallying point for all of the [Santa Clarita] valley. The community's football fans can now root for a common goal."

More important, perhaps, its high school players will have an additional college option.

Although only about one-fourth of Canyons' players hail from Canyon, Hart, Saugus and Valencia highs, that percentage likely will increase.

"Our senior group last year, we didn't have a lot of kids who could go on and play in college," Herrington said. "Next year, they'll probably have about 80 kids to choose from."

The attraction for players this season varies.

"Most of them have commented that this is really new and exciting," Lyon said. "But guys have also come up and said, 'You have the best facility and a new program.' "

Peter Dirksen, among three quarterbacks vying for the starting job, and wide receiver Tim Feirfeil were among the area's best pass combinations last season at L.A. Baptist High.

Dirksen said he and Feirfeil compared their options before choosing Canyons.

"I like Coach Lyon and I thought I had a better chance of starting here than somewhere else," Dirksen said. "I'm really happy with the decision I made. Everybody is really pumped about this. We definitely want everyone to know that we're going to be good."

Feirfeil, a standout pitcher, said he chose the Cougars over Valley because of Canyons' baseball program. But he wasn't about to attend a school without a football team.

"Most people were saying that it's a beginning school and it's going to be tough to get a good look from a Division I school," Feirfeil said. "I was a little worried about that in the beginning, but I'm not now."

Brian Pritchett, who caught 34 passes as a senior at Hart in 1996, transferred from Valley, where he spent a redshirt season last year.

Pritchett, who lives in Valencia, said his reasons had as much to do with geography as athletics.

"I probably would have stayed at Valley if there was no Canyons team," Pritchett said. "But at Valley, I was at school from eight in the morning until eight at night. It was horrible. We just had to sit around in the sun for two hours, waiting for practice with nothing to do. Now, I can go home, relax, maybe watch TV before I have to begin the second part of my day.

"I do notice, though, that we're getting better and better every day. I think we're going to be pretty good."

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