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Best Foot Forward

October 15, 2002|Lauren Peterson | Times Staff Writer

Sixty-eight spectators stand along the sidelines or sit in portable bleachers as they watch a seemingly out-of-season soccer match on a recent afternoon at Crossroads Soccer Complex in Santa Monica.

Less than a mile away, nearly 2,000 fans gather at Santa Monica College for a nonleague football game between L.A. Loyola--with a roster of 67 varsity players--and Antelope Valley.

At the football game, an announcer provides play-by-play description over the stadium sound system and spectators follow the action with the help of a professionally printed program that included rosters for both teams. They do so in relative comfort, sitting in grandstands with backs on the bleachers as a school band jams, pep squad members cheer and a mascot dances under the glare of lights on Friday night. A trail of smoke drifts with the tantalizing aroma of barbecued hot dogs, chicken and ribs.

For the Santa Monica New Roads versus La Canada Delphi match at the soccer complex, there are no announcers, programs or concessions, just boys and girls running the field in a coed game -- the centerpiece of sports activity this fall for about 18 tiny Southern California high schools.

They play in the International League, one of two circuits -- the Condor League is the other -- that play fall futbol instead of football as a concession to the small enrollments of their members.

"It's definitely a little bit different," said Max Shereshevsky, a junior forward for Delphi. "We're basically in our own little world here."

Little is the operative word.

"If you have 50 people at these games, it's a good crowd," said David Bryan, the head administrator at New Roads, which has an enrollment of 236, mid-sized by small-school standards.

Enrollment at the 11 schools in International League soccer ranges from 52 students at La Canada Renaissance Academy to 302 at San Gabriel Academy. That's quite a difference when compared to the combined enrollment of 3,757 at Antelope Valley and Loyola highs.

Nonetheless, the match between New Roads and Delphi, which ended in a scoreless tie, was just as important to the players and fans as was Loyola's 21-19 victory over Antelope Valley to football fans. Parents and friends of the soccer players cheered every tackle and agonized over missed scoring opportunities with similar abandon.

"I actually go to Santa Monica football games, and it's almost identical to that, but on a smaller level," New Roads student Eamon Cannon said as he watched the soccer match.

"It's the same type of thing -- but it's more personal."

The International League began competition in the fall of 1989 -- at the request of officials at San Marino Southwestern Academy and Pico Rivera Mesrobian. Those schools didn't offer football but had students who wanted to play soccer and basketball, both of which are winter sports.

"Soccer is extremely popular here," said Southwestern Academy Athletic Director Robert Gibbs, who first petitioned the Southern Section to sanction fall soccer. "You have a small number of students, some who want to be athletes, and a lot of kids who have never played on a sports team."

A combination of factors contributes to decisions to offer soccer instead of football, including the small enrollment and soccer being a better fit for academics-oriented schools, many with large contingents of students born in other countries. Tiny athletic talent pools, lack of facilities, safety and liability concerns and budget constraints are other factors.

Whatever the reasons, International League soccer is growing. San Gabriel and Renaissance academies and Los Angeles Shalhevet joined the league this year.

"It's a great program because, otherwise, we would never be able to compete in sports," said Cesar Jimenez, the coach at Delphi, which has an enrollment of 76.

The presence of girls is commonplace because separate girls' soccer programs are not offered.

Girls on football teams have become more common for the same reason. But they usually get into games as kickers, while senior midfielder Kellyn Fahey is a Delphi team captain and Glendale Adventist junior midfielder Cristina Mirzakhanian is her team's second-leading scorer with five goals. Both players start and play most of the time.

"To me, it's not out of place, like it might be in football," said Dave Newman, the soccer coach at Granada Hills Hillcrest Christian. "There are ways that a girl can be as successful as boys in soccer, by being smart, aggressive and having good skills. Sure, they're not going to be as strong as a 260-pound guy, but that's not soccer."

In the International League, it's not football, either.

"I don't think we have three or four guys here big enough to play lineman," said Gibbs. "We don't have gigantic guys, so it's a more level playing field."

It's just not a football field.

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