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Junior Partners

Cox and Morris give resurgent Royal an attack that poses problems for No. 1 Westlake tonight.

October 27, 2000|MIKE BRESNAHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SIMI VALLEY — Kicking and screaming he went, from the unbeaten junior varsity to varsity early last season at Royal High.

The promotion felt more like a demotion to James Cox, who was happy at the lower level, where he had led the Highlanders to a 3-0 start one year after leading the freshman team to a 9-1 record.

But, his coaches told him it was time to play with the big boys, to introduce his fleet feet and accurate arm to faster, stronger competition.

His coaches said he was the quarterback of the future for the Highlanders' spread offense. Then they assured his parents he would not become past tense.

"I promised we'd protect him," Royal Coach Gene Uebelhardt said. "They believed me."

His numbers weren't stellar--two touchdowns and four interceptions in part-time duty--but Cox is making a believer out of opponents this season.

The 6-foot-2, 180-pound junior's growing pains helped turn around a struggling program that faces a big challenge tonight against defending Marmonte League champion Westlake (6-1, 3-0 in league play), The Times' No. 1 team in the region, which has flushed Royal (5-2, 2-1) eight consecutive games.

Cox has efficiently managed the wide-open attack, which utilizes three- and four-receiver packages. He has completed 60 of 140 passes (42.9%) for 852 yards and nine touchdowns with four interceptions, and has run for five touchdowns.

Cox isn't the only beneficiary of the open attack. Running back Greg Morris has 789 yards and 11 touchdowns in only 62 carries.

The 5-foot-9, 165-pounder, also a junior, averages 12.7 yards a carry, the same as lightning-quick Tyler Ebell of Ventura.

In a surprising 47-7 victory over Newbury Park last week, Cox ran for three touchdowns and threw for two. He completed passes to eight receivers in leading Royal to its first victory over Newbury Park since 1994.

Perhaps his coaches knew what they were doing by throwing him into the Marmonte League fire last year.

"I'd have rather played JV because our JV team was playing pretty well," Cox admitted. "But I'm glad I played varsity. It's a whole different game going from JV to varsity. It's a lot faster."

The spread offense appears to be a natural for Cox, whose ability to improvise and find open receivers have served him--and the Highlanders--well.

"We designed the offense for him last year to survive," Uebelhardt said. "We designed it this year for him to star."

Morris' mantra: More yards, fewer carries. Against Rio Mesa, he had 205 yards in only eight carries. Against Newbury Park, he had 187 yards in nine carries. And against Agoura, 169 yards in 11 carries.

The numbers come despite the lack of a blocking back in Royal's single-back sets, though Morris doesn't necessarily need one. He has a habit of turning a crack in the defense into a long journey down the sideline.

"He may not have Ebell speed, but he's pretty quick," Cox said. "Even in practice I have to hurry up and get him the ball [on a handoff]."

Running over Rio Mesa and lighting up downtrodden Newbury Park are one thing, but are Cox and Morris really that good?

"No," Westlake Coach Jim Benkert said. "They're awesome. Both of these guys are big-time players.

"Cox is a playmaker who makes something out of nothing, kind of like what Cade McNown did at UCLA. And Morris, if he gets outside or gets a little hole, he's gone."

Benkert knows he'll have to contain them to keep alive the Warriors' winning streak against Royal, which dates to 1992.

"Every game is a new experience for them," he said. "They're young and they're only going to get better."

Few people thought Royal would be a legitimate threat this season. After all, the Highlanders were 7-13 the last two seasons.

But Cox and Morris are turning dour preseason prognostications into post-season possibilities.

"A lot of teams look at our past and say, 'We're playing Royal . . . we don't have to play 100%,' " Cox said. "We've shown them that we show up to play every week."

Cox and Morris, who share the same birthday--Dec. 29, 1983--shared a vision of success before the season.

"Everybody was like, 'It'll be the same as every other year,' " Morris said. "Cox and I were like, 'It'll be different.' We just wanted to prove it to everybody."

They almost have.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

MATCHUP

WESTLAKE at ROYAL

Tonight, 7 p.m.

NO ROYALTY

Royal has not beaten Westlake since 1991. A look at the last nine games:

*--*

Year Result 1999 Westlake 45, Royal 3 1998 Westlake 28, Royal 7 1997 Westlake 43, Royal 16 1996 Westlake 36, Royal 0 1995 Westlake 28, Royal 7 1994 Westlake 21, Royal 7 1993 Westlake 48, Royal 14 1992 Westlake 20, Royal 6 1991 Royal 21, Westlake 0

*--*

Note: Westlake has outscored Royal, 269-60, since 1992.

GAME DAY

* Undefeated Crescenta Valley will try to continue its success against Muir tonight while Notre Dame looks to shut down Chaminade. D17

*

RESULTS

* St. Bonaventure extended its Ventura County-record winning streak to 22 games with a 47-0 victory Thursday over Bishop Diego. D17

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