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Making Waves

Mira Costa, a volleyball power, proves it can play good football

September 28, 2002|MIKE BRESNAHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Surprisingly, Don Morrow held onto the phone when he heard the news, his composure intact.

Anyone else in his place might have spiked the phone in jubilation, but the Mira Costa High football coach continued on as if he were simply chatting about the weather.

The news: The team that had ruined Morrow's championship hopes the past two seasons, Newhall Hart High, had been bumped to a higher playoff division. Mira Costa was now heir apparent to the Southern Section Division III title.

But Morrow wasn't exuberant. Looking back, he says he actually was miffed.

"We wanted to play them," Morrow said this week. "We think we have a team that could compete with them this year."

His primary concern now is keeping Mira Costa at the top of the Division III rankings, a not-always-simple task at the scenic Manhattan Beach school.

Hemingway couldn't have found a better place for football than Mira Costa, where ocean breezes blow wisps of fog through the field and seagulls pluck at the moist grass on any given fall afternoon.

Across the street from the practice field is a church. Down the road is a flower shop. The Pacific is less than a mile away, as the seagull flies.

During two-a-day practices, as football players around the Southland melted in sweltering triple-digit August temperatures, Mira Costa's players worked out in mostly breezy conditions.

"Some of them started to complain," assistant coach Bill Lysle said. "We said, 'What's there to cry about? It's 74 degrees out here.' "

The setting is perfect for surfing. Or beach volleyball. Not necessarily football.

No surprise--before Morrow's arrival in 1993, Mira Costa had never advanced past the second round of the playoffs.

While the boys' and girls' volleyball teams have made Southern Section championships an annual affair, the success of the football team is a relatively new phenomenon at a 51-year-old school where only five football players in the last 25 years have gone directly to playing at a Division I college.

"When we step off a bus for a game, 11 out of 13 times people probably point to us and say, 'They're the ones that are going to lose,' " Lysle said.

Mira Costa volleyball teams, meanwhile, sent players to USC, UCLA and Stanford ... in the last year.

The football team is well aware of the school's beachy-keen reputation, in particular the notion that more students would rather wear wetsuits than a dozen pounds of football gear.

"People say, you're a beach city," quarterback Peter Dobush said. "Kids play volleyball there. I tell them beach kids can play football, too."

Wilmington Banning, which has won 11 City Section titles, can attest to that. Mira Costa downed Banning in a physical nonleague game Friday, 28-22, at Gardena High.

Michael Okwo rushed for 110 yards and a touchdown in 20 carries and Mira Costa (3-0) held the Pilots (2-1) to 64 yards in the second half.

A 6-foot, 210-pound linebacker and running back, Okwo certainly isn't beach sand-soft. A tough, slashing runner, and a heavy hitter on defense, he has scholarship offers from Stanford, UCLA, USC and Oregon State.

Like others around the Mira Costa campus, Okwo credits Morrow for turning the program around.

Morrow rules by democracy and scores points with his players by doing such things as allowing them to design their own gadget plays. One last year--a tailback pass play--was named after a fast-food restaurant. When the call came into the huddle during a game, the players broke into a smile.

"It's not a dictatorship here," Okwo said. "Sometimes you don't have the 6-5 guys, the 4.4 40 [-yard dash] guys. Our coach knows we don't have that, but he works with what he has."

At a practice this week, Morrow, 43, looked as if he could still be a high school student, wearing khaki shorts, a Hawaiian floral shirt, sandals and wraparound shades as he walked in and out of the huddle with a strawberry sucker in one hand, daily practice plan in the other.

A former Cal State Northridge quarterback, Morrow knows the game. He graduated in 1977 from Aviation High, the now-defunct school in Redondo that closed in 1982 because of dwindling enrollment.

He played two years at El Camino junior college and then went to Northridge, where his highlight was a 20-17 victory against UC Davis and future NFL quarterback Ken O'Brien in 1981.

Morrow's coaching skills took off shortly after he was hired away from South Torrance. Mira Costa won the Division VII title in 1993, Morrow's first season, and won the Division IX championship in 1997.

A year later, however, the Mustangs were moved up to Division II. They lost to Diamond Bar in the first round that season and failed to make the playoffs in 1999.

That's when the whispers started. Maybe they're in over their heads. Maybe those championship victories over Garden Grove Rancho Alamitos and Monrovia came against inferior competition.

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