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The Valley Could Stay at the Peak

September 10, 2003|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

Remember the City Section playoffs last year? If you're the Carson Colts, how could you forget.

In what would be a topsy-turvy postseason, the Colts remember the pain of a 48-28 upset loss to Jefferson in the first round.

"It showed that film doesn't tell you anything," Carson senior safety Chet Sanders said, recalling the harsh lesson of overconfidence. "You've got to win it on the field."

It wasn't only Carson whose title hopes were dashed in a 48-minute span. Other usual suspects Crenshaw and San Pedro were also first-round losers. In their place were Gardena, Fairfax and Roosevelt, enjoying their best seasons in years.

In the first all-San Fernando Valley final in 32 years, Lake Balboa Birmingham won its first title since 1963 with an upset of heavily favored Woodland Hills Taft.

The season's final two weeks were devoid of Carson, Dorsey and Wilmington Banning, schools that have won 20 of the last 26 major-division championships.

"You don't see a team that everybody is saying 'Wow' over," Fairfax Coach Shane Cox said. "It's not just the Carson-Banning-Dorsey show anymore."

What in the name of Gene Vollnogle is going on here? Is this a trend? Can any school really dream of hoisting the trophy in December without delusion?

"You've got some new people in the hunt," Gardena Coach Marshall Jones said. "Venice and Fairfax can be thrown into the mix. For that matter, when was the last time Gardena was mentioned [as a title contender]?"

There is no clear favorite heading into the first week of the season, though there are five early contenders: Birmingham, Venice, Dorsey, Carson and Gardena.

The odds of the Patriots repeating are slim. San Pedro (1996-97) is the only team to have accomplished the feat since Banning's run of six in a row from 1976-81.

While a second consecutive title might be more surprising, Birmingham shouldn't be counted out with senior running back Bryan Baylor and junior linebacker Luke Laolagi returning. The Patriots will also have a surge of talent coming from their freshman-sophomore team that dominated that level last season.

"We don't mind being the target," Patriot Coach Ed Croson said. "We want to be in the front."

If there is a preseason favorite, it is Venice. The Gondoliers reached the City semifinals last year and held a fourth-quarter lead against Taft. Two key additions complement an impressive number of returning skill players and nine returning defensive starters.

Sure-handed senior receiver Ryan Graves transferred from Pasadena Muir after leading Southern California with 106 receptions last season. Graves teams with big-play wideouts Gerold Rodriguez and James Lewis for the best receiving set in the City. Getting them the ball will be senior quarterback Beau Davis, who transferred from Carson. That will be fresh in the Colts' minds when they visit Venice on Friday for a season opener.

Dorsey is the trendy pick among several coaches based on a talented, but young group that got better throughout last season. Running back Jeremiah Johnson, safety Jerome Boyd and tight end-defensive end Jasper Henry are the focal points of a team many expect to return to prominence.

"We were a young team last year," said Coach Paul Knox, who needs one victory for 150 in his career. "We were able to win one game in the playoffs, but we had to draw Taft. Even in that game, the way we played in spurts showed us we could have actually done something if we were a little more consistent."

Carson had plenty of talent last year but also plenty of attitude, something that Coach John Aguirre is glad to do without.

"That [playoff] loss didn't surprise me," the fifth-year coach said. "I knew we were not ready to play that game."

The Colts are younger and might need two or three games to round into shape. Junior quarterback Bo Napoleon has the job to himself, while senior running back Robert Miller, senior linebacker Elisha Mueller and senior lineman Norris Malele show the cupboard isn't bare.

Gardena has gone further each year under Jones, falling one step short of the Coliseum last fall. All-City option quarterback LaFerrell Payne is gone, but Jones believes his team is better everywhere else.

"We know we're as good as anybody else," he said. "It's just a matter of who's going to make plays."



2002 champion: Birmingham.

League favorites: Dorsey (Coliseum), Carson (Marine), Grant (Sunset Six), Venice (Western), Birmingham (West Valley), Sylmar (Valley Mission), Franklin (Northern), Roosevelt (Eastern).

Contenders: Crenshaw (Coliseum), Gardena, San Pedro (Marine), Fairfax (Western), Granada Hills, Taft (West Valley), Monroe, San Fernando (Valley Mission), Wilson (Northern).

Key games: Grant at Poly, Oct. 17; Gardena at Carson, Taft at Granada Hills, Oct. 31; Dorsey at Crenshaw, Birmingham at Taft, Nov. 7; Garfield vs. Roosevelt, Nov. 8; Franklin at Wilson, Nov. 14.

The scoop: No team on the Westside has won the section's major-division title. Will high-powered Venice be the first? And there are other questions: How will Birmingham defend its City title? Are Dorsey and Granada Hills ready to take a major step forward this season? Could long-suffering Verdugo Hills become a factor thanks to incoming running back Ryen Carew, one of the section's top players?

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