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Football: Mission Viejo's offense may get glory, but defense that lost many of its 2001 starters is a force again as unbeaten Diablos stop Mater Dei, 21-19.

September 21, 2002|BEN BOLCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Think Mission Viejo High football, and several images come to mind.

There's the high-powered running game that produced headlines last season, when the Diablos won the school's first Southern Section title in 20 years.

There's Coach Bob Johnson, the brusque quarterback guru who instructs elite high school signal-callers every summer at his renowned camp.

Down the list is the Diablos' defense.

Yet, not giving that unit special credit for the team's success is like giving George Harrison only passing mention in a discussion of the Beatles, or emphasizing only Orville Wright's contributions to the airplane.

Mission Viejo's defense was--and is--every bit as significant as its offense, which regularly churns out 40 points a game, and its coach, who prepares quarterbacks as well as anyone in the country.

"Just because the headlines aren't talking about what they did," defensive coordinator Marty Mikkelsen said of his players, "they know that there were games last year where if it weren't for their effort and their success, we wouldn't have won."

The Diablos shut out four opponents and limited teams to 8.9 points per game on their way to a 14-0 record last season. They held Chino, which had averaged 38 points, to nine in an 18-9 victory in the Division II title game.

And in what might be its biggest test this season, the Mission Viejo defense stiffened when it needed to Friday night during a 21-19 nonleague victory over Santa Ana Mater Dei before about 6,000 at Santa Ana Stadium.

Senior lineman Justin Williams sacked Mater Dei's Jason Forcier on a two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the score with 4 minutes 35 seconds to play, highlighting a stellar second-half effort. Williams also recovered a fumble in the third quarter and sacked Forcier twice on the Monarchs' final drive.

"They were double-and triple-teaming [lineman] Chris Cole," Williams said. "They had single coverage on me, and the coaches told me to just shoot in there."

Senior lineman Ryan Quarles also played well for the Diablos (2-0), No. 4 in The Times' rankings, recovering two fumbles. Senior linebacker Chance Moline contributed early by intercepting a pass by Jason Mier at the Mater Dei 43-yard line and returning it to the one. Brandon Johnston, who finished with 123 yards rushing and two touchdowns, bulled one yard into the end zone four plays later to make the score 6-0.

Mission Viejo held Mater Dei to 43 yards in the second half after the No. 14 Monarchs (1-1) got 126 in taking a 13-9 halftime lead.

The defense was no less impressive in Mission Viejo's opener, a 48-0 rout of Fountain Valley.

"That," senior nose tackle Cole said, "showed that our defense was ready."

It was ready to start the season despite losing two of its best players, middle linebacker Ryan Powdrell (Saddleback College) and cornerback Joe Fleskoski (Texas El Paso), and returning only two starters in Cole and senior defensive back Marcus Dailey.

Fleskoski's replacement, junior Marty Tadman, had two interceptions against the Barons in his debut as a starter.

Mission Viejo's coaches and players contend that this year's defense might be better than the one that established itself as the stingiest in Orange County last season. The starting linemen average 6 feet 1 and 240 pounds, and the slowest averages a respectable 5.0 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

"We've kept the speed with a bigger front," Johnson said. "We think we can defend some things better than last year because of that."

If nothing else, Mission Viejo's defense is more experienced.

A liberal substitution policy had reserves Jed Collins, Travis Wittick and Aaron Miller spelling the Diablo starters last season. They not only played, but made key plays. Wittick, for example, dropped the Chino fullback for a four-yard loss on a drive inside the Mission Viejo 15-yard line that resulted in no points.

"Now we have guys who have gone through the wars," said Steve Sherman, who coaches the inside linebackers.

Talent and experience are only part of the story. Sherman and Mikkelsen emphasize hustle and squeeze out every drop of effort. The co-architects of the defense hold court with their charges in the back of a cramped trailer with the air conditioning cranked to what feels like 40 degrees.

Plastered on the walls are motivational posters created by Sherman and Mikkelsen from what they've gleaned from annual spring visits to college football powerhouses throughout the country. At Oklahoma last spring, the coaches got the idea for a poster listing 12 traits that characterize great defensive line play, such as never attempting to go around or give ground to pressure.

The adage they expound most is from another college power, Tennessee: "A man's value to his team can be measured by his distance from the ball when the whistle blows."

Dailey, a three-year starter, said that has become the defense's mantra. "You have to play hard to play your best," he said. "You can't be lazy."

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