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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | Eric Sondheimer

Promising Olson Has Star Quality

May 10, 2000|Eric Sondheimer

It would have been a perfect scene for the old television series, "The Wonder Years."

Ben Olson was an eighth-grader playing in his first tackle football game for the Conejo Cowboys. No one in his family wanted him to play football.

His father, Richard, preferred basketball.

Older brother Chad warned, "Hey, man, you're not going to like it. The guys out there hit hard."

Poor Ben got pushed around from start to finish. He came home with a bloody knuckle, then pulled up his shirt to reveal some bruised ribs.

His father quipped, "See, I told you you wouldn't like football."

With a glint in his eyes, Ben responded, "I love this game."

End of discussion.

"From that day forward, I knew he'd be a football player," Richard said.

College recruiters from coast to coast will soon know all about Olson, a 6-foot-4 1/2 quarterback for Thousand Oaks High. The junior-to-be is left-handed, freckle-faced and possesses exceptional arm strength.

"When you hear the ball coming toward you, it's a little frightening," Richard said.

Spring football practice begins Monday for Southern Section schools. Olson could prosper in the new passing scheme being installed by first-year Coach Mike Sanders, a former offensive coordinator at St. Francis.

Last season, Olson shared quarterback duties on the varsity team and passed for 673 yards and five touchdowns in a run-oriented attack.

Sanders, who helped tutor St. Francis quarterback John Sciarra, one of the region's top prospects, has brought in former Royal High, UCLA and Idaho quarterback Ryan Fien to serve as Olson's coach. Both coaches praise Olson's athletic skills and work ethic.

"The first time I saw him, he was dunking a basketball," Sanders said. "He's a super kid. You leave John Sciarra and think, 'I'm not going to get a chance to coach another [quarterback] like him for a while,' and then there's Ben. I'm excited."

Fien, an Oxnard police officer when he's not coaching quarterbacks, said, "He's going to be something special because he wants to learn. He's a lot better athlete than I was coming out [of high school]."

Olson must overcome lack of experience. He missed all but three games of his freshman season with a broken ankle. Last season was mostly devoted to learning plays and gaining football instincts.

This spring, summer and fall is the time for Olson to blossom.

With a 3.8 grade-point average, 4.6-second speed over 40 yards and the willingness to listen and learn, Olson is capable of distinguishing himself in many ways.

"I want to succeed," he said. "I really want to play college football. I don't know my limits yet. I don't know how good I can be. I believe you're as good as how hard you work. That's what gets guys to the next level--how hard they work, their dedication and how much they want it. I'm trying to learn as much as I can and work as hard as I can."

Olson will benefit from the return of two dependable receivers in junior Dave Anderson and senior Brian Hoover. The three will be spending so much time together throwing and catching passes they probably should consider themselves brothers.

Olson also does extra work on his own. He rises at 5:45 a.m. to do push-ups and sit-ups and attend a seminary class at his Mormon church. Occasionally he'll make a run up what he calls "Tarantula Hill," near his home.

"It's pretty hard to run up that thing," he said.

His summer figures to be hectic, playing football and basketball.

But Olson projects as a successor to the eight area quarterbacks who signed with NCAA Division I schools this year.

Sciarra and Kyle Matter of Hart head the quarterback class of 2001, with Olson leading the way for 2002.

Sit back and enjoy Olson's Wonder Years.

*

After four years of sitting on the bench, former Chaminade High defensive back Jason Zdenek is listed No. 1 on UCLA's depth chart at free safety.

"This is the most exciting time I've had here," he said. "It's been everything I've tried to get and everything I've wanted to get."

A faster, more aggressive Zdenek made dramatic improvement during the winter and spring, putting himself in position to be a major contributor in the fall.

Adding to the excitement is that his brother, Eric, a defensive back at Chaminade, will be a freshman at UCLA in September.

"I can't wait to have him here," Jason said.

The brothers like to compete against each other, which should push Jason even more. . . .

First-year Coach Ed Croson of Birmingham has hired former Chaminade and Valley College receiver Tyler Fenwick to coordinate the Patriots' passing game. . . .

Former Campbell Hall high jumper Josh Levy cleared 6-7 to finish second for UCLA in the USC-UCLA dual meet Saturday. . . .

For those who question whether coaches make a difference, examine the record of Al Scates, a Tarzana resident who guided UCLA to its 18th NCAA volleyball championship last weekend. He is a coaching genius. . . .

Crespi, Burroughs, Hart, North Hollywood, Valencia, Cleveland, Alemany and Granada Hills have pulled out of American Legion District 20 baseball this summer and will field teams in Palomino ball.

Their decisions were prompted by the new District 20 rule requiring teams to play high school graduates. Coaches want more flexibility in how they develop their high school programs. All the teams defecting have excellent young players, and their absence will weaken the Legion summer program.

*

Eric Sondheimer's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422 or eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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