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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | ERIC SONDHEIMER

Packing a Wallop

Granada Hills' Ortega Makes His Mark With Concussive Force

October 04, 2000|ERIC SONDHEIMER

"Crash" is his nickname, collisions on the football field are his game.

Call him wacko, call him psycho, call him a space cadet. Robert Ortega of Granada Hills High has been involved in so many collisions he could qualify for NASCAR driving school.

"He'll hit people twice his size and he'll do it play after play," receiver Joey Rodriguez said. "He hit me back on JVs and I haven't hit him since."

Added quarterback Bobby Baca: "He's crazy out there and plays with a lot of emotion. He always does something spectacular."

Whether carrying the ball as a fullback or charging ahead as a strong safety, the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Ortega is never afraid of contact.

"I like to hit," he said. "That's what football is. It's about hitting and competition. I lower my shoulder and don't back down from anybody."

The way he acts, some people might think he has been hit in the head too many times. Granada Hills' coaches adore him but also fear the unexpected.

"He's a free spirit who drives [Tom] Harp and I crazy," co-Coach Darryl Stroh said. "He's a great kid. But he'll plop down on the field. He'll do back flips."

"Unpredictable" is how Ortega describes himself.

"I don't think about what I'm doing--I react," he said.

He's the absent-minded professor who plays like a gunslinger from the Old West.

He scored 1050 on the Scholastic Assessment Test but settles for a C average. His father is a high school physics teacher, but listening to a teacher is about the last thing he'd choose to do.

He can be a hothead, but his charm and thoughtfulness were reflected in the birthday gift he gave his girlfriend--a cocker spaniel puppy.

Boredom or the lack of a challenge is something he despises. How else to explain why he didn't go out for football as a freshman when he had been playing the sport since he was 7?

"I knew I was good in football," he said. "I wanted to try new things."

So he played volleyball and basketball his first year at Granada Hills, then joined the freshman-sophomore football team the following season. And what was the impression he made on Coach Larry Klevit?

"I have never met a player more determined on the field than him," Klevit said. "He's Jack Lambert."

Last year, Ortega went out for the swim team, leading to teasing from his football teammates for wearing Speedos. He competed in the 50-yard freestyle. He wasn't particularly good, but he didn't drown, either. And it was an educational experience. He's been watching swimming during the Olympics.

"I watched Darra Torres and that other chick, Jenny Thompson," he said.

Ortega's first claim to fame last season was his 97-yard pass reception that didn't go for a touchdown.

"I was slow last year," he said.

This season, he's averaging 8.9 yards per carry, 18.5 yards per reception and has 29 tackles for the unbeaten Highlanders (4-0).

Against Jefferson last week, he rushed for 125 yards, caught five passes for 79 yards and made an interception. "Ortega was the reincarnation of Larry Csonka," Harp said, referring to the bruising former Miami Dolphin fullback. "He was just breaking tackles and making people miss."

Afterward, it was vintage Ortega.

"Where's the doctor?" he asked on the sideline. "I think my nose is broken. It's crooked."

The doctor looked at the nose and told him it was fine.

A helmet can protect his head, but a crooked nose is part of life for "Crash" Ortega, a 17-year-old who plays the game like few others.

*

Bob Francola is coach of Kennedy's football team, but there are really four head coaches on staff. Assistants Fred Grimes, Dion Lambert and Billy Parra could be running their own programs. All three had schools trying to lure them away during the off-season.

"Fred got calls," Francola said. "Billy got calls. Dion got calls. I'm the only one who didn't get calls."

Parra is largely responsible for Kennedy's sophisticated spread offense that is so confusing that Stroh of Granada Hills said, "It's stuff I've never seen--ever."

Players who are ineligible to catch passes can be found as wideouts. One minute there are four receivers, then five. One minute there are three backs, two, one, then none.

The most startling development is that quarterback Adam Geery, in his first season as a varsity starter, is running the offense as if he knows what he's doing. And he does even though he's an All-City pitcher playing football for the fun of it.

"Adam has done a marvelous job being steady and efficient," Francola said. "He's an incredible athlete."

Added Parra: "If we're a flying circus, Adam is our ringleader. We're having a blast."

*

Granada Hills' freshman-sophomore football team has two future varsity standouts. Freshman quarterback Brandon Charls has passed for 550 yards and nine touchdowns in four games with no interceptions. Sophomore receiver Kevin Crane has scored eight touchdowns, six receiving, and is averaging 35 yards per catch. . . .

Former Providence High and USC third baseman Jeff Cirillo finished with a .326 batting average for the Colorado Rockies, the third consecutive year he has eclipsed .300. He has a .311 lifetime average in the major leagues. . . .

Alemany has begun construction on its new $3 million gymnasium that should be completed by this summer. It will seat between 1,200 and 1,500. Alemany has not had a gym since the Northridge Earthquake in 1994.

*

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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