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PREP FOOTBALL 2000 / GOLDEN WEST LEAGUE

Saddleback Hopes Bad Times Will Pass

Roadrunners vow to salvage year despite loss of top running back for at least part of season because he was stabbed at a party.

September 01, 2000|PAUL McLEOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a 4-6 season marked by inconsistent performances by a young team in 1999, Saddleback coaches thought the Roadrunners would have a better shot at reaching the playoffs this season.

Then a week before fall practice began, Coach Jerry Witte got some bad news.

Senior running back Joel Gonzalez, who gained 1,235 yards and had 12 touchdowns a year ago, was stabbed during an altercation at a late-night party and needed surgery to repair a collapsed lung.

Considered a key element in Saddleback's fortunes, Gonzalez is on the mend now, but whether he suits up this season is uncertain.

Gonzalez said he's hopeful he will be back by early October. Witte believes it will be more like Oct. 21 in the league opener against Santa Ana--if at all. Gonzalez meets with doctors Sept. 11 and Witte said there's a chance he'll be sidelined for the season if he hasn't made sufficient progress recuperating.

"It's really up in the air at this time," Witte said.

Gonzalez also was a bruising linebacker on defense.

"We lost a two-way player," Witte said. "We can't fill in for him with somebody comparable. It has a domino effect on the rest of the team because we have to move people around and that affects everyone else. We're still in the throes of trying to figure things out."

The Roadrunners return 26 players and still should contend in the five-team Golden West League, where a little luck and victories against the right opponents can lead to a playoff bid.

Now the job of leading the offense falls squarely on quarterback Ramon Saavedra, who started only three games last season. Saavedra missed more than half of 1999 with injuries, but he did pass for 867 yards and six touchdowns.

"With me out of the offense, we have to change around what the quarterback does," Gonzalez said. "I just feel helpless and when I come back to play, I want to go all out because it's my senior year."

Saavedra had a good spring practice and continued to develop in summer passing leagues, Witte said, gaining confidence in his ability to throw the ball.

"I have confidence in my receivers and confidence in my arm," Saavedra said. "Without Joel, we have to try to pass and run outside more. Joel was a good [inside] runner and opponents had to concentrate on him. Now, all most teams have to do is just stop our passing."

The receiving corps is led by Ismael Isais, who had nine receptions for 114 yards last season.

"If Joel doesn't play, it would affect us a lot," Isais said. "We were depending on his running game."

Isais said the team took the news hard at first, then became more determined than ever to work through its problems. He's still confident things will work out.

"We don't feel pressured, but losing a player like Joel does affect you," Isais said. "I don't think we'll fall flat on our faces."

Witte was pleased with the offensive line in spring practice. It has matured since last season and will be asked to give Saavedra plenty of time to throw the ball.

But make no mistake, the line misses Gonzalez too.

"They all were really looking forward to blocking for him," Witte said.

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