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Large influx brings big-time athletics to Murrieta Valley

November 12, 2002|Paul McLeod | Times Staff Writer

Wally Clark remembers the dusty days 13 years ago when he arrived in southeast Riverside County to become the first football coach at Murrieta Valley High. "We hardly had any stop signs, the streets were small and it was like being out in the country," he said.

Not any longer.

On Friday nights, the glow of the lights at the school's football stadium acts like a beacon that summons thousands of residents -- city officials, parents, seniors and students -- from their wellappointed homes in the foothills down to the flatlands, where they pack the aluminum bleachers.

Affordable housing and improved transportation have helped to convert the barren stretch along Interstate 15, from Lake Elsinore to the wine country of Temecula, into one of the fastest growing regions in the nation.

From an enclave of cattle ranches and rest stops, the area has exploded to a population of about 100,000 in little more than a decade. And with it, high schools such as Murrieta Valley have quickly become sports powers.

The Nighthawk football team is 8-0-1 and ranked No. 2 in the Southern Section Division V poll. Four of the school's five other fall sports are also ranked among the best teams in their classifications.

The reason is twofold: plenty of students to choose from and plenty of support.

At 4,000 students -- nearly twice the size it was built to support -- Murrieta Valley is by far the largest school in the corridor. And when football boosters circulated a letter seeking donations from local businesses, they raised $12,000 without otherwise lifting another finger. Another $5,000 was raised from a one-day golf tournament that drew nearly 100 participants.

But the rapid expansion has also come at a high price. Good athletes who might be in the starting lineup for many schools don't make the roster at all, and facilities are strained to the limit.

"We hold tryouts and we cut 100 kids per team," said Dave Zirkle, the school's athletic director. "We have all-stars who come to us from youth leagues who can't make our teams."

Competition is so fierce that the parents of Murrieta Valley athletes are required to sign a letter acknowledging the long odds of their children making one of the school's sports teams.

"It warns them," Zirkle said, "that, unfortunately, because of the number of players we have trying out, your all-star son or daughter will probably not make our team. I have to be blunt with them."

Help is on the way in the form of a second high school, Vista Murrieta, which is nearing completion among a new tract of homes on the east side of the valley. It is scheduled to open in August, but it will be two years before it offers varsity competition.

And, as earthmovers and dump trucks are beginning to dot the grassy hillside to the west above Murrieta Valley High, experts say at least two more high schools may be needed.

The same holds true to the north in Lake Elsinore, where new homes race up the hillside above rustic Wildomar. Temescal Canyon and Elsinore highs already have a combined enrollment of more than 5,000.

To the south, in Temecula, two high schools are on the drawing board to help relieve crowding at Temecula Valley and Chaparral highs, which combined have more than 6,000 students.

John E. Husing, a former college professor and author of an annual report that deals with growth, development and quality of life issues in the Inland Empire, says that the genre of people moving into the area have not been previously associated with past migrations in Southern California.

"They are technicians, programmers, young professionals and executives -- all well educated," he said. "They can get a lot of house for the buck. That has pushed an enormous amount of growth into the region."

School districts are the largest employers in the valley, but many new arrivals have come from San Diego County, where they have family ties or jobs, Husing said.

Improved roads have made it easier to commute. It takes about 50 minutes to reach downtown San Diego on Interstate 15. Improved east-west connectors just below the Riverside county line make it a 40-minute drive to Oceanside for a day at the beach. And there is talk of building an expressway through the Cleveland National Forest from southern Orange County that would connect with Interstate 15, known in these parts as the Temecula Valley Freeway.

The region has a lot of fans, including many young families. The town of Murrieta, founded in 1873 by a Basque sheep rancher and incorporated in 1991, still has a sleepy feel. Once an outpost on the Butterfield Stage route, Temecula became a city in 1989 and is a bit more upscale with its wineries and refurbished Old Town shopping area.

"It's a slower lifestyle here, more family oriented with good education and safety," said Murrieta Valley athletic secretary Julie Middleton, whose son, Tyler, is a water polo player for the Nighthawks. "It's a nice place to raise a family."

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