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Fairfax Gets Younger, but Revival Continues

November 27, 2002|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

Troy Jackson and Barry Johnson represent the future for Fairfax High's football team. Though they never expected it, they are also the key to the present for the Lions.

When Jackson connected with Johnson for a seven-yard touchdown pass to lift Fairfax to a 13-12 overtime victory over Crenshaw in the first round of the City Section Championship Division playoffs, it exemplified how a team can persevere in the face of adversity.

"I can't see any other team going through as much stuff as we've been through," said Coach Shane Cox, whose Lions (7-3) play Lake Balboa Birmingham (8-3) in the quarterfinals tonight.

Had things worked as planned at the beginning of the season, Jackson, the sophomore quarterback, and Johnson, the freshman wide receiver, would never have been in that playoff game.

Fairfax's two best players, senior wide receiver-defensive back Jason Ferguson and senior quarterback Thomas Herringshaw, haven't played a down this year.

Ferguson, a 5-foot-5 dynamo who impressed college recruiters with his speed and elusiveness, was lost to an injury after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in June at UCLA's football camp. He totaled 3,700 yards and 34 touchdowns the past two seasons.

Herringshaw is following his parents' wishes that he forgo his senior season of football to concentrate on his academics and obtain a pilot's license. As a junior, he threw for 2,618 yards and 20 touchdowns.

A bright student with a 3.4 grade-point average, he admitted it has been hard to watch the Lions and not be part of their success.

"It's hard to not be out there," said Herringshaw, who still attends a majority of the team's practices and continues to work out. "I'm sad that I'm not playing, but I'm happy that the team is winning. We'd be such a different team if ... "

Cox, however, hasn't had the time to ponder the what-ifs. Other issues have kept him busy:

* Senior defensive tackle Jonathan Dib hasn't played because of a heart murmur detected before the start of the season.

* Linebacker Sidney Osman is out for the remainder of the season with a broken elbow.

* Wide receiver Steven Cotton, who was recently shot in the stomach outside a fast-food restaurant in the Crenshaw district, has missed the last four games and is unlikely to play tonight.

* One of the Lions' assistant coaches resigned in October after a disagreement with the fourth-year head coach.

Then there have been some bad breaks on the field.

Fairfax lost a 22-20 double-overtime game to Westchester when an official mistakenly allowed a two-point conversion on a blocked point-after kick.

Other teams may have fallen apart under similar circumstances, but not this one.

It was only four years ago when the Lions were the City Section's worst program. Cox, 34, was hired in the middle of a 34-game losing streak that stretched to 43 games during his first season.

But the former defensive coordinator from Locke is fast gaining respect as one of the section's top young coaches. The Lions went 8-3 last season, marking their best record since 1991, and their victory last week was their first Championship Division playoff victory in the same time span.

Hard work -- particularly off the field -- has been a major part of the Lions' revival. A room adjacent to the school's gymnasium that was once used for storage has been converted into a weight room.

Fund raising has allowed Cox to purchase weight equipment each year. Study sessions are mandatory in Cox's classroom twice a week before practice.

Assistant coach Ed Vega said Cox is committed to building the program and doing it the right way.

"It was difficult in the beginning because you really had to teach everything from scratch," Vega said. "Shane started out as a brand-new coach, but he did all the hard work. And he treats the kids like his children. Kids that like you are bound to be successful because they're going to work for you."

Cox deflects most of the credit.

"It's not the coach," he said. "It's the kids. Bottom line, it's the kids who are the ones that are on the field making the plays."

Just as Jackson and Johnson have done since moving up from the freshman-sophomore team. And just as running back Derrick Hill and linebacker Naim Adams have done all season while the youngsters were gaining experience.

Cox said belief -- in the system, in the coaches, in the program and in themselves -- has carried the Lions to goals that, at one time, weren't even imaginable.

"They stuck with me," he said. "A lot of adults, much less kids, would have quit in similar situations."


It was one of the most improbable weeks in City Section playoff history.

Jefferson dominated second-seeded Carson, 48-28, despite barely getting into the Championship Division. Fairfax stunned third-seeded Crenshaw. Roosevelt scored its first upper-division playoff victory since 1973, even though it took two nights to beat San Pedro, 14-11.

As a result, of the four Marine League teams that qualified for the Championship Division, only Gardena will play in the quarterfinals.

"I thought there'd be no less than two, if not three teams [from the Marine League] that made it past the first round," Gardena Coach Marshall Jones said. "I can't remember a year in which the No. 2 and 3 seeds got knocked out in the first round."

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