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Keeping It Simple

Los Altos High's straight-forward approach breeds a tradition that rivals any school

October 05, 2002|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is no sacred helmet from which players draw strength, no sign above the door that they tap on their way to the football field. There's no axiom that the team lives by printed on the cover of a playbook or the back of a T-shirt.

There is only football and fundamentals at Hacienda Heights Los Altos High, a straight-forward, streamlined football program that doesn't try to do too much, but still accomplishes plenty.

In Southern California, top-ranked Long Beach Poly sets the standard for high school football, having won five Southern Section titles since 1972.

In the same span, Los Altos, which ran its record to 3-1 (the loss was a forfeit) Friday with a 14-10 come-from-behind victory over Chino Hills Ayala, has won nine.

But while Poly enjoys the spotlight of Division I, Los Altos has won titles two of the last three seasons in the relative obscurity of Division VII. Indeed, the Conquerors have one of the best football programs that few people have heard of--three title games in a row, and a trip to the semifinals the year before that. And that's just fine with them.

In an age when Santa Margarita has a souvenir program that rivals most colleges, Poly suits up 99 players, and some bright-eyed coordinator at this minute is diagraming a better mousetrap, Los Altos has discovered that less is more.

"We're about as low-key as you can get," said Greg Gano, who is in his sixth season as coach. "Just take care of business. Do what you have to do. This isn't Camp Pendleton."

Los Altos keeps its approach simple.

Each opponent gets the same treatment; the Conquerors prepare for strong teams the same way they prepare for weak ones. "That way, the kids aren't confused," defensive coordinator Lee Fair said. "The adjustments we make are technique adjustments. We try to work within what we do all the time."

The focus is always on fundamentals. Every day, every week, practice is the same. "We tell our kids that if we do what we're supposed to do, and we do it with the right technique, if they beat us it's because they're a better player or they have better people," Fair said. "We make sure we don't beat ourselves."

The players respect their coaches--and vice versa. "They're players' coaches," said senior Caleb Flores, a receiver and defensive back who is averaging 19.0 yards per reception. "They take care of us, and we feel the same way."

Everyone knows his part in the game plan. "We all know our role in order to be successful," said Carlos Ordonez, the senior quarterback who has completed 28 of 52 passes for 612 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions. "The coaches know what we can do and don't put us in situations where we can fail."

Another example of getting more from less: Four years ago, the most talented player on the team was also its biggest distraction.

"We booted him, and the kids never mentioned his name again," Gano said. "The next week we started a 23-game winning streak."

This season, Los Altos has plenty of options on offense, including junior running backs Randall Brown and Daniel Drayton; Brown is averaging 6.9 yards per carry with six touchdowns, and Drayton 5.3 with nine.

But the strength of the team is its defense, led by senior tackle Armando Soto and junior end Brigham Harwell, who had 18 sacks last season.

Gano gets much of the credit for continuing the tradition started by Dwayne DeSpain, who retired after 29 seasons with a 244-94-9 record (71.6%), including 44-16 in the playoffs and 7-2 in championship games.

"We didn't have a lot of guys beating the door down when the position became available," DeSpain said.

Gano was among those advised to steer clear of it. "I had guys telling me it was like replacing John Wooden," said Gano, who had been head coach at Covina Northview for two seasons. "But what bigger challenge is there? I never really felt the pressure.

"Dwayne told me it would take three years to build the program back up. We went 7-4-1 the first year, then 10-2, 13-1, 14-0. I kept things just about the same within the program."

And the victories just keep coming.

Against No. 24 Ayala, a Division II team, No. 11 Los Altos trailed at halftime, 10-0.

But in the second half, the defense tightened and the Conquerors took the momentum and the game--the program's 300th victory since DeSpain took over in 1967.

Brown rushed 21 times for 136 yards, including a 46-yard score in the third quarter that capped a six-play, 95-yard drive that cut Ayala's lead to 10-7. Brown also set up the game-winner, returning a punt 19 yards to the Ayala 35 midway through the final quarter.

Four plays later, Drayton scored from 10 yards out with 4 minutes 31 seconds left in the game.

From there, the defense took over. In the final minutes, Jeff Castro and Ray Martinez both broke up pass plays that would have gone for key gains. On the game's last play, Ben Chavez intercepted a desperation pass at the Los Altos 10 to seal the victory.

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