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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | ERIC SONDHEIMER

Zdenek Works Way Onto A-List

September 17, 2000|ERIC SONDHEIMER

Of all the delirious UCLA players celebrating a 23-20 victory over third-ranked Michigan on Saturday in searing 110-degree heat at the Rose Bowl, no one had earned the moment of pure elation more than free safety Jason Zdenek.

From the time he was one of the last recruits in Coach Bob Toledo's first recruiting class of 1996, Zdenek has been buried at the bottom of the Bruins' depth chart. He wasn't as lowly as a walk on, but people paid more attention to the managers than to him.

He had one tackle in three years. Last spring, when the competition opened up for the starting job at free safety, there were Bruin fans whispering, "Anyone but Zdenek."

"They've been looking for that the entire time I've been here--expecting someone in that position to fold," he said. "That's not the way I am. That's not the way I was raised. And that's not my mentality."

Zdenek won the right to become the successor to the likes of Kenny Easley, James Washington, Eric Turner and Shaun Williams in spring practice by improving his speed and learning the position so thoroughly he could be a secondary coach.

So there was the 22-year-old Chaminade High graduate walking off the field after playing every defensive down against the Wolverines, breaking up two passes and making four tackles in a historic Bruin victory before 88,044.

The smile on his face, the sense of accomplishment, the realization how far he's come after spending four years sitting on the bench--it was a moment Zdenek never imagined in his most creative of dreams.

"I don't know if it's explainable," he said. "It's everything I've been working for and I could have never pictured it panning out like this. I'm loving the rewards from working so hard these four years.

"There was no way I was going to give up and not have the success I dreamed about coming out of high school."

Those who remember Zdenek at Chaminade know that when there was adversity, he rose to a different level. He was the Eagles' quarterback and top defensive back. Chaminade had one of the best teams in the region his senior year, with Bruin tight end Gabe Crecion among the stars.

But Chaminade (9-0) lost to Notre Dame and Justin Fargas, 19-15, in the Mission League title decider when Zdenek's pass was intercepted in the end zone with 29 seconds left. And the Eagles lost in the Division III semifinals to Diamond Bar, 14-10, when Zdenek bobbled a snap on fourth down at midfield with 1:36 left.

Each time, the way Zdenek reacted revealed much about his character and his potential for the future.

"I'll take the blame," he said after the playoff defeat.

What 17-year-old ever accepts responsibility for a mistake, let alone a 21-year-old?

It was a peek into Zdenek's mental toughness and helped explain why he kept competing year after year at UCLA when most everyone else concluded he'd never become a major contributor.

"I'm the same person I was when I came here in '96," Zdenek said. "I've been working to get the opportunity to show what I can do and it's turned around."

One reason for Zdenek's improvement was the arrival this summer of his brother Eric, a freshman walk-on defensive back from Chaminade. From seven-on-seven passing games to running sprints, the two thrive on outdueling each other. If it came to fists to decide who was best, they'd do it and they have.

"I love the fact when I decided to come to UCLA, Eric and I talked about being able to be on the same team together if I redshirted and everything panned out," Zdenek said. "It's wonderful having him on the sideline helping me and coaching me. It's just added another level of excitement."

The two brothers were together at the Rose Bowl, basking in the glow of a memorable triumph.

And how hot was it?

Cody Joyce, a reserve UCLA receiver, said, "My mouthpiece was melting."

Zdenek's arms were covered with sweat. But a little heat wave wasn't about to prevent him from fulfilling his destiny as the Bruins' full-time free safety.

"He's the perfect example of a player who persevered and understood it's a five-year road," said assistant coach Gary Bernardi.

This was a game in which so many former Valley players stood out for UCLA that maybe the team's new nickname should be Valley Bruins.

Tight ends Crecion and Mike Seidman (Westlake) each caught key receptions for first downs.

Quarterback Ryan McCann (Agoura) was magnificent in the second half and finished with 236 yards passing and two touchdowns.

Running back Jermaine Lewis (Antelope Valley) rushed for 34 yards in seven carries.

Fargas, in his return to Southern California, rushed for eight yards in four carries for Michigan. He stripped the ball from the Bruins' Ricky Manning on a punt to set up a Wolverine touchdown.

Zdenek and Crecion finally got to experience a victory over Fargas, something that didn't happen when Chaminade was playing Notre Dame.

"This is a little more important than high school," Crecion said.

Zdenek dropped a potential interception in the first quarter, when there was nothing in front of him but the goal line.

"That was upsetting," he said.

As always, he moved on to the next play, never looking back. He's a special player who's creating a special legacy.

*

Eric Sondheimer can be reached at his e-mail address: eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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