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La Habra's Defense Lays It on the Line

Highlanders vow to continue the kind of aggressive play that helped to rescue their season and earn them a league title last year.


The first practices were agonizing for the defense at La Habra High, which was obliged, like all teams, to begin preseason workouts in shorts and T-shirts, without pads, simulating game conditions.

With seven starters returning from last year's Freeway League championship team, the defensive corps thirsted for action.

"Those first three days were terrible," said defensive tackle Jesse Schroeder. "Defensive guys like to hit and can't wait to get the pads on to really get into it."

An unknown quantity last year at this time, the La Habra defense is loaded and ready for the 2000 season. After maintaining its resolve during the team's 0-4 start last year, the defense helped rescue the season with a series of fourth-quarter stands that kept La Habra's league record unblemished and brought the Highlanders (6-5, 5-0) their first league championship since 1988.

Schroeder and fellow tackle Eddie Aldaco emerged early, joining the more experienced Justin Moore-Brown on the defensive front. All three return, along with defensive backs Kevin Burrison, Jonathan Tapia, Pascual Alvarez and three-year starting linebacker Sergio Sanabria.

Coach Frank Mazzotta sensed something special about the defense in last year's training camp and was reassured upon hearing that its goals this season include three shutouts, five defensive touchdowns and holding opponents under 14 points.

"I noticed their aggressive attitude right away," Mazzotta said. "The whole group wants to hit and are pretty aggressive. We don't have to toughen them up. [But] there are different kinds of kids. We also have some who are not so eager to get dirty. Fortunately for us, we have got guys in the right spots who like to get dirty.

"The defense didn't play bad at all last year, it was our offense that never got going early. We played solid enough defensively in each game but the offense took time to come around. Same thing this year."

Even though La Habra lost its first four games last year, the players weren't discouraged.

"We weren't getting blown out, and it seemed like we should have won a couple of those games," Sanabria said. "And every game we were leaving it all out there on the field. We tried to keep the mentality that it was fourth and one in every situation--that every down counts. And you have to have confidence in your teammates. That still applies this year."

After winning its final nonleague game, La Habra handled Sonora, 28-14, in the league opener, then stopped Troy twice in the fourth quarter to win, 16-15. The following week, the Highlanders used two fourth-quarter stands inside their own 10-yard line to defeat Fullerton, 22-21.

"All of that was pretty amazing," Mazzotta said. "[But] I thought we were right there all along. We'd meet each Monday and I'd ask, 'So what are we going to do, sit here and cry or practice harder?' Every one of them just picked it up."

Said Aldaco: "That's when the team started coming together."

Mazzotta calls the 6-foot-1, 260-pound Aldaco solid and strong, and says Schroeder plays the entire field. Moore-Brown and Billy Radcliffe round out the line.

Sanabria's leadership skills will be required as juniors Nick Flores and Mike Bryant are being asked to step up. Antonio Sanchez joins free safety Burrison and cornerbacks Alvarez and Tapia in the defensive backfield.

"We want to play all 10 games like we played the last six," Sanabria said. "Everything we've done since last season and everything we're doing now is a little tougher, more up-tempo. We're all aware of what we have to do and that's to work hard to get to 1-0, instead of 0-1."

Senior quarterback Mike Keeling will direct an offense that includes running back Brent West and a deep receiving corps featuring Alvarez, Sanchez and Jeremy Koontz. Junior center Gabe Romero anchors a young offensive line.

Some opponents might have overlooked La Habra last season and may do so again in 2000, considering that the Highlanders lost one of Orange County's top players in Josh Herrera, who rushed for 2,088 yards last year and is now at Cerritos College.

"To win another title, we've got to have some luck, stay mentally tough and execute," Mazzotta said. "You can't do things halfway. We have to keep doing what everybody else has to do: the best you can. We got leadership from last year's seniors and we'll get it again from this year's group."

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