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Fit to Be Tied

Foothill's blowout of El Modena evens the longtime rivals' series

December 07, 2002|Martin Henderson | Times Staff Writer

For the first time since 1983, Santa Ana Foothill High will be playing football for a Southern Section championship.

How sweet is that?

Because of the way they got there, even sweeter than you might imagine.

Foothill advanced to the Division VI title game by routing its longtime rival, Orange El Modena, 45-7, Friday night before an estimated 4,000 at Tustin High. The Knights will play either Hacienda Heights Los Altos or Tustin, which play tonight at Los Altos, in the championship game on Friday at Edison Field.

But first Foothill will savor this one. The Knights simply overwhelmed a team that had allowed only three points in two previous playoff games.

Mike Liti did much of the damage, scoring four touchdowns, the first on a 58-yard run on the game's second play. He rushed for 175 yards and three touchdowns in 15 carries and caught a 10-yard scoring pass.

And he had plenty of help.

Don Poole completed 15 of 18 passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns, and receiver Quincy Lever caught five passes for 104 yards.

As for defense, Foothill swarmed El Modena's Daniel Dixon, keeping him out of the end zone for only the second time this season. The Vanguard running back, who came in having rushed for 2,378 yards, was held to 84 yards in 26 carries.

"They came out and pounded us," Dixon said. "I give them all the credit in the world."

For Liti, it was almost too good to be true.

"This was our best game of the year, by far," he said. "To play our biggest rival in the semifinals in my senior year and to blow them out is just remarkable."

Or at least pretty darn surprising.

Foothill and El Modena have been going at it for about 35 years now, and the series is even, 17 wins apiece with three ties.

Located in an unincorporated area between Tustin and Orange, Foothill opened in 1964. El Modena, about 2 1/2 miles north, came along two years later.

The Foothill-El Modena rivalry in the early 1980s was among the most spirited in Southern California.

Five times in seven years, from 1978-84, El Modena played for a Southern Section divisional championship. Twice, in '81 and '83, the opponent was Foothill.

But then, in the mid-'80s, the coaches at both schools, Foothill's Ted Mullen and El Modena's Bob Lester, retired.

What followed were some years of average teams and new passions.

Foothill's emotions became stirred by Tustin High, which often competed for the same athletes. El Modena's major rival became Villa Park, with whom it shares Fred Kelly Stadium.

Still, with the teams usually in the same league -- Foothill moved out of the Century League and into the Sea View this year, marking only the fourth time they haven't competed for the same championship -- the football rivalry kept percolating. But just barely.

Dynamic senior classes at both schools this year can be credited to getting it back to boiling.

"Tustin guys are our friends," David Goto, a two-way lineman for Foothill, said at a practice leading up to the game this week. "El Modena guys just make me mad.

"I have respect for them, but that's it."

That's the way it used to be.

El Modena, under Lester, won three section titles from 1978-84, and a key player on a couple of those teams helped sparked some ill will with Foothill.

Transfers weren't common in 1979 when linebacker Rex Moore transferred after his freshman season to El Modena, and became a starter on the varsity as a sophomore.

"That fueled the rivalry," said Tom Shine, who was offensive coordinator at El Modena from 1971-84.

"Within [a month] of the transfer, we faced each other in a summer league game, and there were three or four fights. Everyone was taking a shot at Moore."

When Mullen, a close friend of Lester's, took over at Foothill in 1981, the rivalry became even more intense.

Though El Modena was the more dominant team, Foothill was no slouch.

In 1981, Foothill defeated El Modena in the regular season, 21-17, because El Modena receiver Jim Fregosi Jr., son of the Angel shortstop, was ruled to have dropped what would have been a last-minute, game-winning touchdown pass.

Later that year, Foothill won the section's Southern Conference title in triple overtime, 31-24 -- a result that prompted the section to eliminate overtime in championship games until this season.

Two years later, in 1983, El Modena beat Foothill for the title, 10-7.

"This game was everything," said El Modena line coach Don Gibson, a sophomore on the Vanguards' 1983 team. "It was always very anticipated, and it was always to decide who the league champ would be.

"The game always meant something, not just between players and friends, but there was always something at stake."

Much like a place in the championship game was on the line Friday.

Coaches and players from both schools point to a freshman-level game in the fall of 1999 as the flash point of renewed tensions.

The only thing standing between El Modena and an undefeated season was 8-1 Foothill.

Sure enough, Foothill won the game, spoiled the Vanguards' perfect season, and claimed the freshman championship.

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