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'Little' Orange Lutheran can play with big boys, as upset of Mater Dei demonstrated

September 20, 2003|Rob Fernas | Times Staff Writer

These are heady times for Orange Lutheran High, a small school that emphasizes life's big picture.

Today is the opening of the school's $4-million Alexandra Nechita Performing Arts Center, named after the world-renowned artist who graduated from Lutheran last spring. Nechita burst on the art scene nearly a decade ago when, as a 10-year-old, her abstract paintings sold for as much as $80,000.

The auditorium's opening comes a week after the Lutheran football team opened the season with its own masterpiece, stunning perennial powerhouse Santa Ana Mater Dei, 35-14, at Santa Ana Stadium.

For many, the victory signaled the big-time arrival of the Lutheran program, which had enjoyed success in the Southern Section's lower divisions but had never beaten a team the caliber of Mater Dei, winner of five Division I titles since 1991.

"There were a lot of congratulations," said Brad Wagner, a senior linebacker. "Some people couldn't believe it -- a little Lutheran school beating Mater Dei, a national power."

Said senior receiver Brendan Circle: "It was sheer excitement from most people."

Principal Gregg Pinick encountered similar reactions. "Whether it's at church or at a mall, everybody is always giving me the thumbs-up," he said.

For Coach Jim Kunau, the celebration was short-lived. A day after the biggest victory of his career, he was back at work preparing for Lutheran's next game. The Lancers, ranked No. 9 in the Southland by The Times, improved to 2-0 Friday night with a 51-6 victory over Long Beach Millikan.

"It's just another indicator of how far our school has come as a whole," Kunau said of defeating Mater Dei, which escaped with a 21-20 victory over Lutheran in the 2002 opener. "The rise of our school in football mirrors the school's growth."

Lutheran, though small compared to many high schools, will never be confused with the little schoolhouse on the prairie.

With about 1,100 students, more than double the enrollment of 10 years ago, it is the largest Lutheran high school in the nation and boasts state-of-the-art facilities throughout its 13-acre campus, the result of $12 million in improvements made in the last two years.

Kunau can appreciate how far Lutheran has come because he was there when the Lancers struggled in obscurity. He recalled his first season as coach in 1993, when Lutheran played Saturday afternoon home games on a patchy field before 150 fans.

"And that's only if we called all the aunts and uncles and begged them to come," he said.

Lutheran finished 5-5 in Kunau's first season with a varsity team of 22 players, necessitating that coaches occasionally join practice to fill out two 11-man platoons. There were about 50 players in the entire program.

Today, the Lancers have nearly 150 players divided among three teams. They practice on Field Turf, an artificial surface that looks and feels like grass and cost $750,000 to install. Home games are played at Brea Olinda High.

The Lancers have a 25-game winning streak in league play dating to 1998 and have won at least nine games every year since 1994, reaching four division finals but never winning a title.

More than the wins and losses, Kunau measures his program's success by the personal growth of the players. The permanent theme of "Champions for Life" reflects the Lancers' hierarchy of values: faith, Christian character, education and competitive excellence.

"We have one simple expectation: be a champion every day in everything you do," Kunau said. "Being a champion means you always do your homework, you always go to class prepared, you're kind to people, you do the right things in preparation on the field."

Commitment to those values cost Lutheran its starting quarterback last season. He transferred to another school before the Lancers' playoff opener after learning he was being benched because of disciplinary reasons.

Kunau said his decision on punishment was affirmed a few months later when he heard John Wooden speak at a clinic. Wooden was asked the best way to handle an undisciplined player.

"Without hesitating, he said, 'The bench,' " Kunau recalled. "The whole place erupted."

Players looking for football glory but unwilling to accept Lutheran's strict code of conduct are steered to other schools.

"We're up front," Kunau said. "We tell them how disciplined it's going to be. You're not going to be allowed to use any bad language, whether it's in practice or in the hallways or in the game.

"We just don't preach about values, we're going to do our best to live by them."

Plenty of families embrace the school's agenda. Lutheran, with a yearly tuition of $6,500, has a waiting list for new students; enrollment is at capacity.

Circle, who scored the Lancers' first touchdown against Mater Dei on a 49-yard pass play from junior quarterback Seth Blackamore, has thrived in such an environment. He has a 4.3 grade-point average and hopes to continue his education and football career at Princeton, Harvard or Yale.

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