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A Small Fortune for Kaiser

September 11, 2003|Dan Arritt | Times Staff Writer

Almost before the paint had dried on campus, the Fontana Kaiser football team brought home the school's first Southern Section trophy in December.

It was a worthy accomplishment for the Cats, who have played varsity football since 2000, but hardly a rarity among Division VIII teams.

In the last 15 years, the division has also served as a launching pad for Mission Viejo Trabuco Hills, Aliso Niguel, La Quinta and Temecula Valley. Like Kaiser, each won the division title not long after its campus opened.

But unlike most of those programs, the Cats are hoping to hang on to their small-school roots. When the section begins charting its next playoff groupings for the 2006-07 school year, Kaiser officials don't plan to request a move.

"We want to play in Division VIII," said Kaiser Coach Dick Bruich, who twice guided Fontana to Division I championships. "That's just where we want to stay."

Based on section grouping procedures, the decision will eventually be taken out of Kaiser's hands. To help determine playoff groupings, the section adds the number of playoff victories the league has accumulated at the end of each four-year period.

If Kaiser continues to pile up playoff victories -- it has won seven in the last two seasons -- the Cats and other members of the Sunkist League might not have a choice. Or Kaiser could be moved to a league in a higher division.

"If they win CIF for the next three years, I guarantee someone is going to bump them up," said Don Markham, a veteran coach at Bloomington, a Sunkist League school.

New schools often have an advantage over established lower-division programs. They are usually in growing population centers and have state-of-the art facilities that attract serious athletes. The initial graduating classes enjoy the perk of playing together during their entire high school careers, often experiencing the highest level of competition at an earlier age than peers at established schools.

And, because new schools rarely begin with a senior class and the Southern Section does not count a school's freshman class toward the enrollment figure used to determine league compatibility, new schools often begin play in less competitive leagues and in lower divisions.

It's not that Kaiser shies away from competing against the Southland's best. Bruich schedules higher-profile neighbors such as Riverside North, the 2001 Division V champion and last season's runner-up. Bruich compiled a 209-57-2 record at Fontana from 1977 to 1998, guiding the Steelers to Division I titles in 1987 and 1989. Having been through the battles in the section's highest divisions, Bruich was attracted to Kaiser's long-term goal of competing at a lower level.

Sunkist League foes understand Kaiser's desire to remain in Division VIII, but a few more seasons like the last, when the Cats outscored their league opponents, 230-6, en route to a second consecutive 5-0 record, and that attitude could change.

Markham first won a section title in 1978 at Colton, then guided Bloomington to three of its first five Division VIII titles from 1994-99. He has had a different view the last two seasons, sort of like the heavyweight champion turning into a sparring partner.

"A first down against them last year was like a touchdown," he said. "It was a little demoralizing. I said, 'Boy, now I know what's it like when you play someone like that.' "

The Cats finished 13-0-1 last season and proved they could hold their own against top teams in the area. Among their accomplishments was a 24-21 nonleague victory over North.

Bruich has strengthened his nonleague schedule, replacing one of the best teams in Division XI, Lancaster Paraclete, with Claremont, ranked sixth in the Southern Section Division II preseason poll. In addition to another game against North, ranked second in Division V, the Cats open their nonleague schedule Thursday at Fontana High against Rancho Cucamonga, ranked eighth in Division II. Kaiser also plays Rialto and Jurupa Valley, both from higher divisions.

This season, Kaiser is facing a vacuum that's not uncommon among newer programs. Because players in the initial graduating classes dominated much of the playing time, most of the current seniors have played backup roles. The Cats return six starters but are still ranked No. 2 in the Division VIII poll.

"We're a totally rebuilt team," Bruich said. "We will be struggling, but we have to accept the fact that we have a very tough preseason schedule and not get caught up in our record."

*

DIVISION VI

2002 champion: Los Altos.

League favorites: Tustin (Century); Orange Lutheran (Empire); Los Altos (Miramonte); Newport Harbor (Sea View); Mayfair (Suburban).

Contenders: Villa Park (Century); Valencia (Empire); Charter Oak (Miramonte); Foothill, Laguna Hills (Sea View); La Mirada (Suburban).

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