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Keeping Football Season Afloat

Catalina Island team travels for hours by boat and bus to reach its away games.

October 25, 2002|Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writer

For the scrappy Avalon High School football team, more than honor was at stake on this bleak autumn Saturday.

The Catalina Island Lancers had taken a bumpy boat ride to the mainland, then a bumpy bus ride inland, to a Riverside private school where odds were excellent they'd be creamed.

The Bloomington Christian boys were bigger. They had grown up playing Pop Warner. Prep football is just 5 years old on the island. The Bloomington boys win league titles. The island boys assembled from a puddle of a talent pool -- 239 students. A few play offense and defense.

When nobody could kick a football this season, the Lancers wooed their school's soccer star, whom they call "the Miracle Toe." There was also, this gray morning, the small matter of the casualty left on their field last year by these Bloomington Ravens.

"This," Coach Earl Schrader dryly reminded the boys, "is the revenge of Colby's finger game."

As the finger saga will later illustrate, mordant humor and true grit define this odd and endearing squad of unlikely small-town winners. So does the fact that living on an island requires the home team or visitors to travel 64 miles round-trip by boat.

Prep athletes from Catalina can miss up to 25% of their class time due to travel, said phys ed teacher and cheerleading coach Debra Hunt. Because their season is year-round, cheerleaders clock more miles than any sports team, said Hunt, who travels with them -- and her Dramamine.

Some of Avalon's athletes suffer seasickness, but accept boat travel as a necessity of island life. Being surrounded by seaweed forests swaying in teal waters? Home field advantage.

"Our players went on a two-hour boat ride to Catalina the first year and several kids got sick," Bloomington High football coach Mike Dennis recalled. "We questioned whether to even stay for the game. Some of the other schools felt Catalina was too far and too expensive to travel to. But if our league didn't let them play, who would they compete with?"

Later, after this day's game ended, Bloomington and Avalon players knelt side by side, black jersey, white jersey, and Dennis led them in a prayer for a safe journey home to the island. "It takes a lot of time and determination," he said, "for these kids to play sports, which I really admire."

*

Scene: Saturday morning, Oct. 12, desert landscape, a freeway exit somewhere near Riverside. After more than two hours traveling, someone needs a bathroom. The bus lumbers up to a Jack in the Box, where uniformed workers can actually be seen grimacing inside.

"Awright! Only people who actually need to go should be getting off this bus," bellows the commanding authority figure on board, cheerleading coach Hunt. "Only use the bathroom. No food. I don't want to see any food. None."

This may seem overstated except that she's surrounded by 50 teenagers who live on an island with no fast-food burger joints. They can't stop because kickoff is at noon. As with each away game, they must keep moving.

Coach Earl, clutching a Styrofoam cup, climbs back aboard the bus. "We got 20 kids standing in line for the restroom and we bought one cup of coffee. Nice."

This trip to Riverside, 59 miles from the dock in Long Beach, will be one of the least arduous this season. And football has among the easiest travel schedules this year, nine league games with only three away.

To compete in the Liberty League with equally small schools, Avalon's athletes must travel to mostly private schools. Next year it will be Avalon's turn to play at Kings Christian, student population 87, near Fresno.

During basketball season, the teams play two games per trip to save money.

"I play point guard for the basketball team," says Jose Perez, 16, who plays tight end and linebacker on the football team. "Two games a trip. It's pretty hard."

But back to this road trip. It launches with the 8 a.m. departure of the Catalina Express hydrofoil. Earl -- nobody calls him Coach Schrader -- passes out boat tickets, and about 27 players, two coaches, perhaps a dozen cheerleaders, two parents and some siblings board.

An hour later, the boat docks in Long Beach. Only about half of the team and cheerleaders are aboard the bus when it becomes apparent it is already full. This bus has no underbelly luggage compartment, so the players hoist their gear on board. The overflow is stuffed into civilian cars.

When the game finally begins hours later, the seafaring Lancers are dominated but stay in the game.

In the face of five straight defeats by the Ravens, the Lancers persevere and play tough. How tough?

Early in the game, starting quarterback Chris Bogard gets hit so hard near the end zone that he has to be carried off the field. He goes back in. Later, he gets hit so hard near the other end zone that he staggers to stand. He manages to signal a time out. Then he throws up, hobbling off the field. Moments later, he goes back in.

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