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Rock Solid

Since losing quarterback, St. Bernard has stood firm in the face of adversity

October 25, 2003|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

No matter how hard he tries to forget, Greg Dixon remembers the play as if it happened yesterday.

It's the one that caused Dixon, Playa del Rey St. Bernard's football coach, to see the season flash before his eyes. It's the one that sent standout quarterback Rocky Hinds to the ground and out for the season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

During a preseason scrimmage against Redondo, Hinds ran a simple play designed to pick up crucial yards in the red zone. He planted his right foot to make a cut, and his cleat stuck in the ground.

Without its star quarterback, one of the top-ranked high school signal callers in the nation, St. Bernard was expected to disappear from the Southern Section Division X radar. A Week 1 loss to Culver City was the first step in the wrong direction.

But a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion. The next week, St. Bernard scored twice in the fourth quarter to beat Torrance, 35-34, and the Vikings reeled off five consecutive victories.

Despite a 36-19 Del Rey League loss Friday night at Encino Crespi, St. Bernard, ranked No. 9 in the Division X coaches' poll, is 5-2 -- a far cry from the team that many wrote off after the injury to Hinds.

"Losing Rocky was a challenging thing to work through," Dixon said. "It was very difficult at first. We didn't know what to expect from the team. We knew we needed a number of guys to step up and, fortunately, they did ... big time."

Hinds is a gifted 6-foot-5, 220-pound athletic marvel in the mold of NFL stars Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper and Michael Vick. Scouts covet his combination of strong arm and sprinter's speed.

He has narrowed his college choices to USC, Notre Dame, UCLA and Washington, and the injury hasn't affected the colleges' interest.

Hinds started at quarterback for St. Bernard as a sophomore and junior. He had developed timing and chemistry with the nine other three-year starters on the team. Losing him set the offense back, but backup quarterback Kennedy Offoegbu is capable, though inexperienced.

The passing game had to be revamped and the playbook nearly slashed in half.

But instead of spiraling downward, the Vikings looked for help from their defense, running game and special teams. Free safety Jared Billups, running back Marcus Crockett and linebacker Perris Loatman have led the charge.

"Losing Rocky was a big loss; he was basically our leader," Billups said. "But the seniors realized that we needed to take up the slack and the defense would need to make some plays."

Billups has four interceptions, three of which he returned for touchdowns. He has returned kickoffs 99, 95 and 90 yards for touchdowns and has caught 14 passes for 308 yards and four touchdowns.

Crockett has 979 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in 94 carries this season. He rushed for 198 yards, including an 80-yard scoring run, in 19 carries against Crespi. In the Torrance game, he had all five touchdowns, including scoring runs of 88 and 62 yards. Against Pasadena La Salle in Week 4, he had 180 yards in seven carries and scored touchdowns of 71 and 95 yards.

Loatman, who has nine sacks, has spearheaded a Viking defense that has made remarkable strides since last season. Against Cerritos Valley Christian two weeks ago, St. Bernard stopped a two-point conversion after time expired to preserve a 21-20 victory. Last year, Valley Christian defeated St. Bernard, 75-28.

"We've had to slow down what we wanted to do on offense," Dixon said. "We've had to become more of a running team than we wanted to be. It's been challenging, but our defense has kept us in this so far."

The St. Bernard defense has given up 114 points through seven games. Last year through seven weeks, the Vikings were reeling at 2-4-1 and had given up 200 points. Last week in the league opener, St. Bernard defeated Cathedral, 20-11, avenging last season's 38-13 loss.

Dixon said the offense is coming around. With Hinds, he planned on a 50-50 passing to rushing ratio. With Offoegbu, they are at about 70-30, but that is starting to change.

"We asked the guys to be patient and give time for Kennedy to develop," Dixon said. "Each week we get a little more balanced. We're getting close to where we would have been if Rocky had been with us."

Offoegbu, who has completed 29 of 65 passes for 477 yards and five touchdowns, said he is ready to take the passing game to a higher level.

"I want to throw more passes," said Offoegbu, who connected with Billups on a streak pattern for an 80-yard scoring play on the Vikings' first play from scrimmage Friday night.

"It's some big shoes to fill, but I'm ready to step up. I've got confidence in my ability."

The injury to Hinds is only part of the adversity the Vikings have had to face this season.

Three weeks ago, linebackers coach Brian Washington died from complications related to diabetes.

"It was heartbreaking," Billups said.

But the Vikings once again showed their character by rallying around the tragedy.

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