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ORANGE COUNTY PREP FOOTBALL

On This Gridiron, Eight Is Enough

Preps: The crowd might be small when eight-man football rivals battle, but the hits will be just as big on the field.

October 28, 2000|BEN BOLCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As far as settings go, one of tonight's high school football games has the makings of a classic. The host team is putting on its first night homecoming game in years, and a standing-room-only crowd is expected to generate an electric atmosphere.

But when the referee blows the whistle and the opening kickoff sails high in the air, few will be able to mistake what's on the line: little more than bragging rights between Liberty Christian and Eastside Christian, Orange County's two eight-man football teams.

Welcome to the wild and woolly world of eight-man football, where decorum is turned on its head, where the backup quarterback plays offensive line and the 250-pound assistant coach, his sweat-stained T-shirt clinging to his not-so-svelte physique, plays cornerback in practice because the defense doesn't have enough bodies.

Eight-man proponents resist the notion that theirs is a cutesy world where players rest under umbrellas with the grandparents along the sideline during the second quarter, though that actually happened a couple of years ago during a Liberty Christian game. Eight-man players and coaches take the game as seriously as the Scriptures.

Yet, even they have to admit that the eight-man game has its adorable side.

You've heard of the Jamaican bobsled team. Now get ready for Jamaican receiver T.J. Fakehinde, a fleet-footed mon who will be something special when his skills catch up to his speed. Fakehinde and Eastside Christian teammates Matt Ellis and O'neil Cousins, new to American-style football, arrived in Fullerton this September through a program that sends Jamaican high school students abroad.

Truth be told, their on-field learning curve is just as steep as their U.S.-born teammates'. Eastside Christian revived football this season after a two-year hiatus caused by lack of interest, and only four players--all transfers--have previous high school playing experience.

"We have a very young team," Eagle Coach Mike Blankenship said. "It's all been kind of catch-up for them, but every game they improve."

Eastside Christian needs drastic improvement if it hopes to hang around with Liberty Christian, which flattened the Eagles, 66-30, when the teams met in Week 5 in an Express League game.

The teams are playing a second time to fill gaps in their schedules, which should be written in erasable ink. Liberty Christian had a recent game against Walnut Southlands Christian canceled because no officials showed up, and Eastside Christian had a game against Southern California Christian canceled when the school folded. Both teams had a game against Pacific Christian canceled because the school declined to field a team.

"It's not an ideal situation [to play Eastside Christian again], but it was way better for us to play another game," Liberty Christian Coach Guy Wilson said. "None of these guys come out here and sweat and work hard to keep their record clean by not playing games. It's all about playing football."

Tonight's nonleague game is at Murdy Park in Huntington Beach, and the crowd is expected to be standing-room-only--if only because there are no bleachers along the sidelines.

The game will be played in the outfields of two adjacent softball fields, and the stakes will be as small as the crowd, which should be able to fit comfortably into a Starbuck's. Liberty Christian (4-1, 3-0), tied with Murrieta Calvary Chapel atop the league standings, already has wrapped up a playoff spot in the small-school bracket of the eight-man playoffs.

But the Minutemen--and the Eagles (1-4, 1-3), for that matter--are out to prove more than their worth on the field; they are out to prove that eight-man can be as big-time as its 11-man counterpart.

After all, you can get into a Mater Dei practice for free. But you have to pay $2 to see Eastside Christian practice in picturesque Craig Regional Park, if only because park officials charge an entry fee.

Players who have switched from the 11-man to the eight-man game say they hit just as hard as their 11-man brethren.

The excitement level has been bumped up a notch this week on the Liberty Christian campus in Huntington Beach in anticipation of the school's first night homecoming game since the 1980s, the last time anyone can remember having one. Homecoming games are always a big draw at the school, but tonight's game, under the lights, with the entire focus on the game, is special.

"We've always had tons of people there, but it's almost been like a picnic," Liberty Christian wide receiver Aaron Mendoza said. "At last year's homecoming we did really well, and I had like four touchdowns, but afterward people were like, 'So how'd you do?' I was like, 'I did all right. I wish you guys had watched.' I was kind of bummed about that."

Mendoza, who leads the league with 29 catches and 637 receiving yards, is one star among many on the Minutemen roster of 15.

Players realize that few, if any, of them will go on to compete at even the community college or small college level, but that doesn't diminish their interest in the sport.

Quarterback Nick Harbert, for one, considers football as important as the other staples of life--God and academics--at his small Christian school (enrollment 85).

"To me, football is not just a game, it's a way of life," he said. "School is just another activity."

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