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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Safety First

But Neal Can Fill Several Roles for Sylmar, Including Tailback

September 05, 1998|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYLMAR — The wristband is muddy. It stinks. And Corey Neal plans to wear it every minute of the coming football season.

"I want to remember," he said.

Remember the agony the last time he wore that wristband, when his Sylmar High team lost by two points in a rain-drenched playoff game last December.

Remember the desperation of lunging at running back Sedric Hurns of Taft, who slithered away for a 47-yard touchdown run, the winning score in that 8-6 game.

Neal was left face-down in the mud.

"It hurt me," he said. "It hurt me bad."

So the 17-year-old senior will carry the memory--in the form of an old wristband. He will also carry the hopes of a Sylmar team that has enough talent and experience to entertain thoughts of making another run at the City Section 4-A Division title.

"We're good with or without Corey," Coach Jeff Engilman said. "But you have to say the kid's special. He can turn a good ball club into a City championship club."

Neal ranks as the most talented defensive back in the region. He has the quickness--a reported 4.4-second time in the 40-yard dash--for man-to-man pass coverage and the toughness to deliver hits at strong safety, his primary position.

He also has what Engilman calls "that instinct."

It is a knack for being in the right place at the right time, for making big plays, for creating turnovers. Witness his 40-yard interception return for a touchdown against Grant last season.

This talent earned him second-team All-City honors in 1997.

"Every time I'm out there, I want to take the ball away," Neal said. "I want to score."

Sylmar will try to exploit that desire by giving Neal a starring role in the offensive backfield, too.

The Spartans have established themselves as a powerhouse in the City Section but have fallen short of winning the championship in recent seasons for lack of a standout tailback.

The team, which relies on a tenacious ground game, still looks to the early-1990s when Tyrone Crenshaw and Durell Price were busting spectacular runs, helping Sylmar win 4-A titles in 1992 and '94.

"It's one of those things that everyone has been saying," Neal said. "The reason we haven't got [to the City championship game] is because we haven't had a tailback to take us there."

Neal is eager to see if he can fill that void.

First, his ankle must heal from a stress fracture suffered in a passing-league game over the summer. Neal spent almost two months in a cast, fretting, watching practices from the sideline. He is not expected to participate in contact drills until next week.

Once the season begins, the Spartan coaches will monitor the stamina of what Engilman calls their "franchise-type" player. Not only will Neal play on both sides of the ball, he will be called upon to punt and return.

Last season, he raced 82 yards with a kickoff to score against Reseda and broke a 66-yard punt return for a touchdown in Sylmar's 7-0 victory over Franklin.

"We rely on him so much," Engilman said. "If he can't hold up, you'll see him much more on defense than offense."

But Neal has worked hard to prepare for double-duty, pushing himself in summer passing league, overcoming a reluctance to work in the weight room. The quiet young man has shown his coach a new maturity and determination. He and his teammates have been egging each other on.

"We talk about it every day," he said. "We came to Sylmar for a reason. We came to win it all."

So he is driven by the memory of that rainy night against Taft, laying face down in the mud.

"Two points. . . . We strived so hard and we came up short," he said. "That's why I'm wearing the wristband. I'm wearing it to remind me every time I'm out there."

SNEAK PEEK

Eighth in a nine-part series. Today:

Defensice Backs: Corey Neal, Sylmar

Aug. 27: Quarterbacks. Kyle Boller of Hart

Aug. 28: Running Backs. Manuel White of Valencia

Aug. 30: Tight Ends. Mike Seidman of Westlake

Aug. 31: Wide Receivers. Jerry Owens of Hart.

Sept. 2: Offensive lineman: Tony Sanchez of Sylmar

Sept. 3: Defensive lineman. Carl Cannon of Taft

Sept. 4: Linebackers. Jorge Tapia of Hueneme

Sunday: Kickers. Jason Geisler of Camarillo

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