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Valley / Ventura County Sports | ERIC SONDHEIMER

Youngest Cassel Easily Measures Up

May 16, 1999|ERIC SONDHEIMER

When Justin Cassel walks the hallways at Lawrence Middle School in Chatsworth, he resembles a high school student surrounded by sixth-graders.

One of his Little League teammates is barely tall enough to reach Cassel's bellybutton.

At 14, Cassel is navigating through an awkward age, where boys either start growing, stop growing or frantically try to catch up.

In the case of Cassel, he's more ready to play high school football than some seniors.

"I've been waiting for this step all my life," he said.

On Wednesday, the 6-foot, 195-pound eighth-grader will begin workouts at Chatsworth High under a City Section program that allows schools to take an early peek at incoming freshmen who live within residence boundaries.

No eighth-grader is more visible or comes more highly regarded than Cassel, the younger brother of Matt Cassel, Chatsworth's All-City quarterback.

Two seasons ago, as a seventh-grader, Justin quarterbacked the Northridge Knights to an unbeaten record and a Valley Youth Conference championship. Last season, he weighed too much to be eligible for tackle football, so no one knows what to expect when he puts on pads this fall with teenagers his own size.

"I could throw the Pop Warner football pretty good," Justin said. "I feel I can throw a high school football 10 times better."

Justin spent hours watching videos of Chatsworth games with Matt on Thursdays and Saturdays. He already knows many of the plays.

Although he's not going to beat out Matt for starting quarterback, he'll probably start on defense and prepare to become Chatsworth's quarterback for 2000 and beyond.

"I coached his brother for six years, and [Justin] has the potential to be as good if not better," said Tony Mugavero, Cassel's youth football coach. "He's got talent that's unbelievable."

Said Chatsworth Coach Bill Coan: "It's very rare to get a Division I quarterback like [Matt], and his brother could be the same."

Justin is also an outstanding pitcher and hitter in baseball. Two weeks ago at Northridge Little League, he hit a home run that cleared the top of a two-story house beyond left field.

"He's a very good kid," said Les Himes, Justin's Little League coach. "He's aware who he is, but not the kind who holds it over the kids. He's living in a fishbowl already. Everywhere he goes, everybody wants to say hello or talk to him. He's older than his years. He has very good balance. I don't think anybody's a can't-miss [prospect], but he's way up the list."

Jack Cassel, the oldest of three brothers, set the example for the family. He was a pitcher at Kennedy and is a freshman reliever at Loyola Marymount.

"Jack set the road for us," Matt said. "Jack had to experience everything first. We followed his example. Jack pushes me just as hard as I'm going to push Justin. I listened to him because he was my big brother and I'm going to get on [Justin] until I get him to where I want him to be."

Justin might be the most physical of the brothers. The three have been known to engage in wrestling matches.

"[Justin] can hold his own, but he usually ends up on the bottom," said their mother, Barbara.

"I get hit enough at home that I want to go out and hit somebody else," Justin said. "Jack isn't around, so I can't pick on him anymore, but Matt has a few inches on me and often I lose."

Justin can't play varsity football until he turns 15 on Sept. 25, but it's not going to prevent him from getting an early start this week.

"I'm pumped, I'm so stoked, I can't wait to get out there," he said. "I want to play against the older kids because it's going to give me more experience. Anything I do, I work harder because I know I can be better."

*

Spring football practice begins Monday for Southern Section schools, and it appears sophomore Kyle Matter has the edge over junior Travis Nicol to succeed Kyle Boller as starting quarterback at Hart.

Matter is 6-2, scored 1370 on the SAT and led Hart's sophomore team to a 10-0 record.

There are a number a quality quarterbacks capable of replacing Boller as the region's No. 1 passer. But who will be that No. 1?

Will it be Zac Wasserman of Westlake? He completed 59% of his passes last season and has committed to Penn State.

Will it be Casey Clausen of Alemany? He passed for 3,213 yards and 27 touchdowns as a junior.

Will it be Chris Lombardo of Newbury Park? He transferred from St. Bonaventure after passing for 26 touchdowns.

Will it be Jason Winn of Granada Hills? Coach Darryl Stroh calls him "the best there is."

Will it be Matt Cassel of Chatsworth? USC Coach Paul Hackett thinks so highly of Cassel, he offered him a scholarship almost a year before he could sign with the Trojans, and Cassel accepted.

But the quarterback making the most dramatic improvement in the off-season is Brandon Hance of Taft. The 1998 season ended with Hance having the best game of his career when he passed for 288 yards and four touchdowns in Taft's 41-29 City Championship victory over Banning.

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