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Gardena's Revival Is One for the Ages

November 06, 2002|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

The last time Gardena won the City Section championship, Watergate and gas shortages dominated the news, the Vietnam War was coming to an end and "The Exorcist" played to huge crowds.

The year was 1973. That November, Gardena capped its 11-0-1 season by defeating Marine League rival Carson, 28-0, to win the City championship. Then nicknamed the Mohicans -- now the Panthers -- it would be their last City championship.

The last time Gardena won a league title was the next year, but it lost in the playoffs. So, it's no surprise that Friday's game against Carson (6-2, 3-0 in league) is being treated with a sense of urgency. The winner is guaranteed a share of the Marine League title.

It's the biggest game for Gardena (6-2, 3-0) since it reached the City Invitational final three years ago.

"Obviously, for our program this game means a lot," Coach Marshall Jones said. "It's been too long since we've been in this position."

Gardena put itself in title contention with a dramatic 25-21 victory over Wilmington Banning last week. The Panthers rallied from a 21-6 third-quarter deficit, and senior quarterback LaFerrell Payne scored the game-winner on a 22-yard option keeper with 26 seconds left.

That victory and another, 29-20 over San Pedro one week earlier, came after the Panthers were upset by Jefferson. Jones said that defeat helped to refocus his team.

"I know the last couple of weeks we have shown a lot of maturity and poise," said Jones, in his fifth year at Gardena. "We've had some comebacks, but I can't remember one like that against such a quality team [Banning]."

Payne is the key to an option offense that features running backs DeAndre Hughes and Jason Franklin.

Perhaps more important is the increase in size of the Panthers' offensive linemen. Seniors Josh Marby, Pa'a Sapolu and Jose Sanchez, and juniors Delvin Dennis and Dionecio Ibarra average 270 pounds and, along with senior tight end Fred Earles, are a major upgrade over front lines of the last few years.

"There are big kids on this campus right now that are not playing football," Jones said. "But when you start winning, you attract more interest from kids. We've gotten a few of them out here the last couple of years."

Assistant Paul Cole, who has been with Gardena off and on since he graduated from the school in 1969, said the re-emergence of the local youth football program and a coaching staff full of former players has helped revitalize the program.

"It's not where we want to it be [yet]," Cole said, "but we're getting there."

Jones, a 1979 Gardena graduate who spent seven years as coach at L.A. University, said he always wanted to coach at his alma mater.

"The last five years have been real fun," he said. "I was an assistant here and when I left, I left with a heavy heart. I thought it was important to make Gardena the proud program it had been."


Coaching at one of the smallest schools in the section, Eagle Rock's Steve Wahl rarely has access to top talent, but he doesn't complain and it doesn't keep him from fielding competitive teams every season.

This year, the Eagles (6-2, 2-1) are in a position to play for the Northern League championship. They are one game behind Franklin (7-1, 3-0) with a possible league title showdown with the Panthers next week.

The last time Eagle Rock was in a similar position was in 1999, with All-City quarterback Torwin Session and fullback Rhuben Williams, but the Eagles lost to Franklin.

Wahl is 53-35 in eight seasons at Eagle Rock, which is a combined middle school and high school with an enrollment of 2,800. It is the only school in the district with that grade configuration, other than magnet and specialized schools.

"We're a community school," Wahl said. "We don't recruit, we have no permits, we've got no kids bussed in. We do it the old-fashioned way, which, I guess, is the way high school football was meant to be played."

The Eagles don't have stars like Session or Williams on their roster this season, but they do field an experienced squad with 14 returning starters.

Running back John Paul Yniguez has 15 touchdowns and 914 yards, including 164 against Belmont and 135 against Tujunga Verdugo Hills.

The return of receiver-defensive back Luis Estrada, receiver Mario Munoz and lineman Juan Morales from early-season injuries has also helped.

Franklin has been the league's standard-bearer with eight titles in the last nine years, and Wahl admits there is temptation to look ahead, but ...

"We're not that good to do that," he said. "Whenever you play Franklin for first place or third place, it's always a big game. We're kind of sensing that it can be a huge game for us, but we're certainly not looking ahead."


Venice's Eddie Miller has put up some big numbers in his two years as a starting quarterback, but the senior may never perform better than he did last week against La Verne Damien.

Miller threw for 479 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-37 loss to Damien, then ranked No. 23 by The Times. Receivers Antwuan Giddens and B.J. Vickers had a combined 24 receptions for 387 yards.

Damien Coach Mark Pasquarella came away impressed.

"He was very good and very accurate," Pasquarella said of Miller. "Those two receivers are going to be playing on Saturdays. If [the Gondoliers] find a way to stop the run, they're going to be dangerous in the playoffs."

Miller has been among the Southland's passing leaders all season, throwing for 2,633 yards and 22 touchdowns.


City top 10: 1. Taft (8-0); 2. Birmingham (6-2); 3. Carson (6-2); 4. Venice (6-2); 5. Crenshaw (5-3); 6. Gardena (6-2); 7. Fremont (7-1); 8. Roosevelt (7-1); 9. Franklin (7-1); 10. Sylmar (6-2).

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