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High Schools

Good Morningside

Monarchs' remarkable turnaround can be traced to off-season dedication

October 04, 2003|Rob Fernas | Times Staff Writer

Mike McCarthy was midway through his first season as football coach at Inglewood Morningside High, and already he had doubts about trying to revive one of the Southland's most downtrodden programs.

"When we were 0-5 last year, I had to look myself in the mirror and ask, 'Is this really the right situation for me?' " he recalled. "It looked dismal."

When McCarthy looks out on the field today, he likes what he sees.

Morningside, in a remarkable turnaround, is 5-0 after defeating El Segundo, 57-7, in a Pioneer League opener Friday night. Another victory among its five remaining league games will secure the school's first winning season in more than a decade.

The Monarchs' transformation can be traced to the dedication of a young coaching staff, a newfound commitment to weightlifting and conditioning, and the determination of players who were tired of losing.

Damerious Thomas, a senior wide receiver, said he anticipated this opportunity since playing on a 10-0 freshman team.

"We wanted to show everybody that this is a team that's going to win," he said. "We've been losing for so long."

Thomas recalled the pain of his first varsity season in 2001, when Morningside routinely suffered humiliating defeats and finished 1-9.

"It was horrible," he said. "You didn't even like saying what school you went to."

Now players proudly wear their black-and-red Morningside sweatshirts outside the campus.

"Three years ago, when they were getting blown out by Inglewood, they weren't very proud to have 'Morningside' on their chests," McCarthy said. "Now they're walking around with their chests out and their chins high, and I'm proud of that."

Instilling pride was one of McCarthy's top priorities when he took over the program before last season. Morningside has not won a league title or reached the Southern Section playoffs since 1992, winning no more than three games in each of the next 10 seasons.

Off-season workouts weren't part of the regimen before McCarthy arrived, but they became mandatory after Morningside ended last season by upsetting previously unbeaten Culver City, 17-16, a victory that McCarthy called "the catalyst" behind the Monarchs' renewed prosperity.

In a team meeting after the game, McCarthy laid down the law: "If you want to play football for Morningside next year, you have to lift weights in the off-season," he told the players.

"And they did it from Day One," he said. "They've just been great."

Pumping iron has helped Morningside lower the boom on opponents. The victory over El Segundo was the Monarchs' fourth in a row against a team they had lost to last season. The other paybacks were against cross-town rival Inglewood, 12-8; Torrance Bishop Montgomery, 40-0; and Santa Monica St. Monica, 58-6.

Beating Inglewood was especially rewarding. The Sentinels had dominated Morningside for years, including routs of 34-0 last season and 52-0 in 2001.

"That really made our year," Thomas said. "It motivated us and gave us the confidence that we can win."

Morningside's success starts in the trenches. The offensive and defensive lines average more than 250 pounds a player, led by Rolando Barragan, a 6-foot-2, 270-pound junior, and Siosifa Moala, a 6-2, 325-pound senior. Barragan came into Friday's game with eight sacks and a fumble recovery for a touchdown.

"The line is the heart of our team," McCarthy said. "They dedicated themselves to the weight room, and that motivated all the other players."

The team's eight players of Tonga descent are another special group, one that includes Moala, senior fullback Heliki Fifita, the Monarchs' leading rusher; junior quarterback Funaki Mateaki, who at 6-1 and 245 pounds is as big as most linemen; and brothers Moses and King Manu.

Only second-year players, the Manus moved to the U.S. last year from Australia, where they grew up playing rugby. Moses, a 6-3, 220-pound senior, plays tight end and linebacker. King, a 6-0, 200-pound junior, plays linebacker.

"Since I've been here I've gotten to know the parents and their family structure," McCarthy said of the Tongans. "They're just the most loving, caring people who just dedicate themselves to their kids. I can't say enough about the Tongan group and what they mean to the team."

McCarthy, 31, said he knew Morningside was an untapped wellspring of talent before he got to the school. He was an assistant coach for three years at Redondo with John Cotton, 29, Morningside's offensive coordinator and a former Monarch player.

While at Redondo, Cotton said he and McCarthy would talk about Morningside players whenever they broke down game film of the Monarchs.

"You'd look at the film and think ... there's something there," Cotton said.

Cotton was among many coaches who felt that if someone could harness the talent residing in Morningside's attendance area, they could build a winner. But that has proved difficult through the years, he said.

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