As expected, a Catholic school team wearing solid-colored helmets offset by three white stripes is off to a tremendous start this season. It is pulling out exhilarating victories and showing that it could be a force in the Southern Section playoffs.
Only this team plays in the Sierra League, not the Serra League, and its helmet stripes stand for faith, family and football instead of pride, poise and courage.
While Santa Ana Mater Dei continues to pound opponents in ho-hum fashion, La Verne Damien is enjoying a renaissance after upsetting La Puente Bishop Amat and positioning itself potentially as the next Catholic school power.
"We're out to make a point," Spartan linebacker John Galaz said. "We feel we should have the recognition that [Serra League schools] have. We want to show everyone that we are capable of what they are."
Best known recently as the school that produced Rashidi Wheeler, the Northwestern safety who collapsed and died in August 2001 while running wind sprints, Damien is putting the focus back on its program as it vies for its second section title since capturing the Southeastern Conference championship in 1977.
The Spartans (4-1), No. 22 in The Times' rankings, open Sierra League play Friday when they host Diamond Bar (4-1).
Even though the Sierra League, which also includes No. 3 Chino (5-0) and No. 23 Chino Hills Ayala (4-1), is plenty tough, some observers think Damien would be a better fit in the all-Catholic Serra League.
The enrollment at the all-boys' school is larger than Anaheim Servite's and comparable to that of Los Angeles Loyola and Bellflower St. John Bosco--two other Serra League schools--but its players and coaches have little desire to switch leagues for reasons that go beyond the transportation dilemma.
"I don't think we could be competitive in that league year in and year out," Damien Coach Mark Pasquarella said. "We have a few teams that come through here once in a while that could play at that level. When I took this job, that was the goal--getting to the point where we could play at that level every year."
The Spartans might not be at that level yet, but they're getting close. Two weeks ago they defeated Bishop Amat, then No. 15 in The Times' rankings, after senior cornerback Dorian Greene tipped away a Lancer pass with 20 seconds remaining.
"Beating Bishop Amat was a satisfying accomplishment," said Father Patrick Travers, Damien's principal. "There is an excitement on campus."
Part of the buzz has been generated by additional last-minute victories over Rancho Cucamonga and Claremont.
"I would never count us out because we play with a lot of heart," said senior Chris Powers, a two-way lineman who anchors what Pasquarella has labeled the best offensive line in his 14 years as a coach. "We stick together and play as a team."
Damien's success is all the more amazing considering that starting quarterback Nick Davila was lost with a broken clavicle the second week of the season. The Spartans have won three of four games with backup Mark Belanger, who had four passes intercepted in a 19-14 loss to No. 21 Covina Charter Oak. Davila has been cleared to practice but will not play until next week at the earliest.
The Spartans have turned to their running game in Davila's absence. Junior Ian Johnson hasn't disappointed, rushing for 552 yards and seven touchdowns on the season.
The team's biggest test comes in two weeks at Chino. If the Spartans win there, they could be top-seeded heading into the Division II playoffs.
"This is the year to make our name," Greene said. "We just know that our time to shine is coming."
Former Baldwin Park Coach Tony Zane, barred three weeks ago from coaching the team he has guided for 30 years after Baldwin Park Unified School District officials discovered he had an irregular heartbeat, is meeting with district officials this afternoon to learn whether he will be reinstated.
Zane, who is 61 and takes medication for his condition, has submitted a letter from his doctor explaining he is not suffering from heart disease and has not suffered a heart attack, as was rumored on campus.
Assistant Larry Davis has coached the Braves (0-4-1), who play host to Valle Vista League rival Pomona Ganesha (4-1) on Friday, in Zane's absence.
Westlake Village Oaks Christian running back Aaron Ware is expected to return this week after missing four games with torn and strained hip muscles.
Ware, a sophomore who rushed for 223 yards in 11 carries during the Lions' opener before injuring his left hip late in the second quarter, is expected to be eased back into competition Saturday when Oaks Christian (5-0) plays Lompoc Cabrillo (1-5) in a nonleague game at Lompoc High, Lion Coach Bill Redell said.
"It's about 85 to 90%," said Ware, who gained 1,858 yards in 165 carries last season. "I thought I was out for the season when it happened. It hurt that much. But all in all, it's been going really good, and this week, it hasn't been hurting me at all."