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Will Arduous Schedule Be a Hart Stopper?

September 10, 2003|Martin Henderson; Peter Yoon; John Ortega; Dan Arritt | Times Staff Writer

Quarterback Sean Norton is excited. Linebacker Brian Elledge is wary.

Both are under the gun.

Newhall Hart begins its season Friday against Los Alamitos, the defending Southern Section Division I champion and the No. 1-ranked team in the Southland by The Times.

For the Indians, it's the first of five games that might be akin to boot camp. Third-ranked Hart faces one of the toughest nonleague schedules in Southern Section history. Four of its five opponents played for section championships in 2002. The other, No. 7 Los Angeles Loyola, reached the Division I semifinals.

Never mind that Hart reached the Division II finals last season and, in Norton and Elledge, return two of the top players in the section at their positions. Hart will be tested like few teams ever.

"You just hope you survive and don't get beat up too much before league [play]," Coach Mike Herrington said. "If we can make it through without any injuries, I think it will help our team.

"But mentally, when we get through this stretch, are we going to be in good shape? As good as we've been, there's an outside chance we could be 0-5 going into league. I don't know how our kids would handle it."

The last time Hart had a losing record going into Foothill League play was 1990. The Indians hope to avoid such a fate despite facing Los Alamitos (13-1 in 2002) -- which they tied last season on a last-second pass from Norton that was deflected to Cody Kase -- defending Division IV champion Ventura St. Bonaventure (13-1), Division IV runner-up Westlake Village Westlake (11-3), City Section champion Birmingham (11-3) and Loyola (9-4). Los Alamitos later had to forfeit the tie for using an ineligible player.

St. Bonaventure is ranked No. 17 by The Times and Westlake No. 14.

Herrington said he didn't realize all those opponents would become powers at the same time. The difficult schedule, he said, "was unintentional," the result of local teams unwilling to play Hart.

"Los Alamitos, Mater Dei, Long Beach Poly -- all those schools have someone on their [nonleague] schedule they know is a lock, a win for them," Herrington said. "And we don't have that."

And that's before the Indians begin defense of their 12 consecutive Foothill League titles and try to extend their 58-game winning streak in the league.

"As soon as I heard about all these powerhouse teams, I thought, 'Are we really playing all these teams in the first five games?' " Elledge said. "I'm more excited than scared, but we're still going to have to play harder than we've ever played before."

Elledge, the heart and soul of the Indians' defense, is one of two returning starters on that side of the ball from last season's 13-1 team. The other is defensive back Dan Howell, who will also play running back this season.

"I feel responsible for most of the kids on the defense," Elledge said. "The defensive line will have to step it up, they'll have to shoulder much of the burden."

But Hart is synonymous with offense, and in Norton it has a quarterback who passed for 3,984 yards and 35 touchdowns. In Kevin Ciccone it has a receiver who caught 79 passes and averaged 16.8 yards per reception.

"I love it," Norton said of the schedule. "It's going to prepare us for our league games, for our playoffs. We may not end up with the best record, but we're going to be able to show everyone who we are, and we're going to be ready for every team we play.

"We're hoping no one gets hurt, but no matter what, it's going to make every single player tougher and know the level of competition we need to be at each week."

And in the back of Norton's mind, there are two teams that he is thinking about: No. 18 Canyon Country Canyon, which represents the strongest challenge in years to Hart's Foothill League dominance, and second-ranked Mission Viejo, the favorite to win the section title.

"I've had my mind on Mission Viejo ever since that [10-6 championship loss]," Norton said. "A lot of these teams over the next five weeks would put up a challenge to Mission Viejo and will let us know where we stand."


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2002 champion: Los Alamitos.

League favorites: Rialto Eisenhower (Citrus Belt), Long Beach Poly (Moore), Santa Ana Mater Dei (Serra), Los Alamitos (Sunset).

Contenders: Los Angeles Loyola, Bellflower St. John Bosco, Santa Margarita, Anaheim Servite (Serra); Anaheim Esperanza (Sunset); Redlands (Citrus Belt); Lakewood (Moore).

Key games: Long Beach Poly at Mission Viejo, Oct. 2; Mater Dei at St. John Bosco, Oct. 17; Loyola vs. Mater Dei at Santa Ana Stadium, Oct. 25; Mater Dei at Bishop Amat, Oct. 31; St. John Bosco vs. Loyola at Glendale College, Nov. 1; Esperanza vs. Los Alamitos at Veterans Stadium, Nov. 6; Lakewood vs. Long Beach Poly at Veterans Stadium, Nov. 7; Loyola at Bishop Amat, Nov. 14; Eisenhower vs. Redlands at University of Redlands, Nov. 14.

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