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Power Structure

When it comes to South Coast League football, it starts with Mission Viejo and works down

October 06, 2003|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

Predicting the winner of the South Coast League football title over the last three years has resembled picking the outcome of a particularly bloody fight you've already seen on pay per view. Suspense is surely lacking.

Mission Viejo High has gone a combined 15-0 against its league rivals -- winning by scores as lopsided as 62-7 over Mission Viejo Capistrano Valley -- en route to titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002.

Guided by a savvy, veteran coach and buoyed by an influx of South Orange County's top players, the Diablos have tied the Orange County record of 32 consecutive victories while establishing themselves as one of the pre-eminent high school powers in Southern California.

Fresh off a 28-27 victory over regional power Long Beach Poly on Thursday, Mission Viejo, ranked No. 2 in the Southland by The Times, appears poised to trample its league rivals for a fourth consecutive season despite Coach Bob Johnson's rejection of the notion that his Diablos rule the league.

"I don't know about that," Johnson said. "We've won it three years in a row now, are going for a fourth and we have our work cut out doing that."

The league's other coaches, while intent on beating Mission Viejo, say it's them who have their work cut out. As long as Johnson is in charge and the Diablos continue to attract top freshmen and high-profile transfers, one insider suggested, don't expect the league landscape to change.

"I don't know if there's going to be any parity in that league," said former Mission Viejo Trabuco Hills Coach Bill Crow, fired after last season for what he suspects was his inability to keep pace with Mission Viejo. "Right now, Mission's riding the wave, and it's a big wave. They will roll right along for at least the next two or three years."

The league hasn't always been a one-horse race.

Capistrano Valley Coach Chi Chi Biehn, one of four first-year coaches in the six-team league, remembers when league titles were up for grabs like a floater lobbed into triple coverage. Biehn was a Capistrano Valley running back during the 1980s, when the Cougars engaged El Toro and Mission Viejo in a three-way tug of war for league titles.

Biehn, 33, has returned to his alma mater to help resuscitate a long-moribund program. Capistrano Valley has not won a league title since 1995 and has not posted a winning season since 1996.

The droughts are even more pronounced elsewhere. Trabuco Hills, which joined the league in 1994, and Dana Point Dana Hills, a member of the league since the school's inception in 1974, have never won a league title.

Parity seemed like more than just a distant catchphrase when Santa Ana Mater Dei, an unwelcome private school power that dominated the league during its seven-year stay from 1992 to 1998, departed in 1999 to join the Serra League.

But after San Clemente defeated Mission Viejo, 33-23, that season to win its first South Coast League title in 21 years, the league reverted to its previous format of one thoroughbred and five also-rans.

Little surprise, league coaches contend, when the area's top incoming ninth-graders gravitate toward Mission Viejo and the opportunity to play for Johnson, who guided El Toro to three Southern Section titles in the 1980s and operates a prestigious quarterbacks camp.

Johnson said his program numbers about 200, including 90 freshmen. The glut of players has prompted the creation of a reserve varsity team, which has trouble scheduling games because so few other schools have them.

The Diablos have also benefited from the arrival of several significant transfers, including Mark Sanchez, a junior quarterback from Santa Margarita who scored the go-ahead touchdown against Long Beach Poly after hauling in a pass on a trick play.

"You're seeing a lot of movement toward Mission Viejo," said San Clemente Coach Eric Patton, whose teams have provided the Diablos with their stiffest league tests in recent years. "When you have a lot of schools close to each other like in that area, it's really easy for kids to go from one school to the other."

Tailback Ramon Scott left for Mission Viejo last spring after three seasons at Trabuco Hills, former Mustang Coach Crow said, after his mother learned that the school's offensive coordinator would not return for the 2003 season in the wake of Crow's firing.

Crow, who had a 40-43-1 record in eight seasons, said he did his best to compete with the Diablos despite a decided talent disadvantage.

"Mission had the good athletes," he said. "We had some B kids, some B-minus kids and they had some A kids."

Citing a need for "new leadership," Trabuco Hills administrators fired Crow in March and hired Jason Negro, an assistant under Crow who had coached linebackers.

Negro said he intends to revive the Mustangs by winning with "the kids that want to be here. Those are the ones you have to build your program around."

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