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Backing It Up

Workhorse stars fend off defenders -- and critics of one-dimensional strategy

November 01, 2003|Lauren Peterson | Times Staff Writer

Former USC football Coach John McKay was asked years ago why O.J. Simpson, his All-American running back, carried the football so often.

"Why not?" McKay shot back. "It isn't very heavy."

High school coaches give similar explanations for relying on one player, and years later, another generation of athletes continues to prove McKay right.

"We're just going with what works," said Mike Mayoral, the coach at Montebello Schurr High, where junior running back Jesse Ramirez carries the offense.

Ramirez is among several Southland high school players who have shouldered the bulk of the offensive workload for their teams. The task is physically taxing -- and emotionally rewarding.

Ramirez averages more than 34 carries and 223 yards rushing a game -- nearly 90% of his team's offense -- and he has the marks to prove it.

"I have bruises and welts all over, and most of them are from football," Ramirez says, stretching out arms covered with cuts, scratches and nicks in various stages of healing.

Flexing his left hand, which was injured earlier this season, Ramirez recalls, "It was pretty swollen. I have no clue how it happened. It must have gotten stepped on."

The soft-spoken, unassuming junior takes a physical pounding, but he keeps coming back for more.

Ramirez rushed 53 times for 418 yards and five touchdowns in a 45-28 Almont League victory over San Gabriel two weeks ago. The performance put him within two carries of the state record of 55 by Larry Ned of Moreno Valley Rancho Verde in 1996. His season totals of 1,342 yards in 207 carries are high marks among Southern California high school backs, and he already has surpassed the rushing yardage, 1,109, Schurr gained last season.

Other prominent workhorses include Lancaster Paraclete senior Jared Nelson, who carried on 34 of his team's 52 plays and gained 262 yards in a recent 20-19 victory over Santa Monica St. Monica, and Costa Mesa senior Omar Ruiz, who averages nearly 40 carries a game. Corona Centennial senior Terrell Jackson had 38 carries for 413 yards and five touchdowns in a recent game against Redlands and he led Southern California in rushing with 1,438 yards until the Huskies' game last week was postponed because of wildfires in the area.

Rosemead Don Bosco junior Nick Acuna and San Juan Capistrano Saddleback Valley Christian's Brian Harbin account for at least 80% of their team's offense each week.

And then there's quarterback Denny Warden of Huntington Beach Brethren Christian, who entered this week with 27 touchdowns and leading the Academy League in passing and rushing. He had passed for 1,526 yards and rushed for 625 yards in 99 carries. He also stars on defense.

"It's a lot of hard work," Acuna said. "Teams are always keying on me. Sometimes, you can hear across the line that they already know what play we're going to run."

Usually, it makes no difference.

"Everybody knows, 'Stop No. 21,' and they still don't do it," Don Bosco Coach Carlos Plantillas said. "We'll tell them the play; I don't care. They've still got to tackle him."

And when they do, it often takes a gang of defenders, with the runner ending up under a large and heavy pile of players.

"I'm constantly saying my little prayers, 'Please let him be OK,' " said Martha Acuna, Nick's mother. "When I see 250-pound players landing on my son, and he's the only one on the bottom, it's scary. But he gets right up no matter how many guys are on him or the beating he takes."

It's usually not until the next day that they rise slowly.

"It takes about 10 minutes to get out of bed," Harbin said. "I'll have bruises all over my body, my arms and ribs. They're pretty sore. Usually, I just sit around in my La-Z-Boy. I'll ice whatever needs icing, do 20 minutes on, 20 minutes off on Saturday mornings while watching college football."

Ramirez's weekend routine includes massages given by an aunt for his shoulders, neck and legs. Nelson indulges in a hot bath the day after a game as a matter of course.

"Every game I get beat up, but I don't mind. Actually, I kind of like it," Nelson said. "I want the ball. I wanted the ball last year, and this year, I just finally got it and got to see what I could do."

Despite the inherent predictability of such offenses, the exploits of the players prove entertaining for spectators, including their coaches.

"It's been fun," Paraclete Coach Jeff Jambretz said. "I catch myself watching him sometimes rather than coaching him."

To those who question his one-dimensional strategy, Don Bosco Coach Plantillas has his own question: "When you have a guy averaging five or six yards a carry, why change?" he said.

Matt Logan, Jackson's coach at Corona Centennial, finds it easy to justify his game plan.

"You play to win the game," he said. "If Terrell not touching the ball means we'll win the game, then that's what we'll do. But that's not the case. We're not worried about [other] kids' feelings too much. I mean, we care, but we're playing to win."

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