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Page 2 | ERIC SONDHEIMER

State title games show true spirit of competition

December 18, 2006|ERIC SONDHEIMER

For all of us baby boomers, those born in the 1950s and 1960s who may be dealing with gray hair and occasional aches and pains, watching 12 hours of high school football Saturday at the Home Depot Center in Carson turned out to be an adrenaline rush beyond expectations.

I didn't believe that the inaugural CIF State Football Championship Bowl Games would produce enough drama or excitement to justify extending the season to a 15th week. Not based on using a school's enrollment to help match the teams.

I was wrong. I failed to take into account the resiliency of 16- and 17-year-olds, prodded by outstanding adult coaches, and how calling something a state championship even though it isn't would elevate everyone's psyche to an extraordinary level.

My eyes couldn't believe what I was seeing as supposedly invincible Westlake Village Oaks Christian, with a 45-game winning streak and a cast of football characters we'll be seeing on TV for years to come, couldn't figure out how to pull away from Cardinal Newman, an all-boys school from Santa Rosa with a thirtysomething head coach, Paul Cronin, who stood on the sideline wearing a tie and had the audacity to try a strategy of using 34 minutes of possession time to keep the Lions' vaunted offense off the field. It took overtime before Oaks Christian prevailed, 27-20, in the Division III final.

Then there was Orange Lutheran, the team that had survived the Trinity League and made it past the school everyone has to beat to get to a championship game, Long Beach Poly. With a quarterback in Aaron Corp, who's the Southland's best running and passing QB this century, and a receiver in Austin Pettis, the comeback player of the year after missing all of last season because of a knee injury, the Lancers defeated Palo Alto, 42-28, in the Division II final despite missing a handful of injured starters.

But the best was saved for last on a windy, rainy, chilly night when Canyon Country Canyon, a team that barely got chosen to represent Southern California and was 1 minute 15 seconds away from elimination a week ago in its Southern Section Northern Division championship game, defeated once unbeatable Concord De La Salle, 27-13, in the Division I final.

It was an exhausting but exhilarating week for everyone involved, and it was worth it. You could see it on the players' faces, how they answered the call, ignored their bumps and bruises and gave everything they had in the name of a state championship.

There was Cardinal Newman quarterback Ryan Lingle refusing to leave the field in the fourth quarter as he limped and grimaced in pain from a leg injury.

There was Canyon receiver-safety Mike Loucks making play after play one week after he suffered a concussion against Moorpark in the Cowboys' last-second, 24-22 victory. How could he recover so quickly when just seven days earlier he was on the ground at the Home Depot Center, being examined by a doctor and trainer, seemingly having convulsions as he kicked his feet around and didn't know what was happening?

"I just knew I wasn't going to miss this game for anything," said Loucks, whose tackle near the end of the third quarter on fourth down at Canyon's 10-yard line denied De La Salle a potential game-tying touchdown opportunity. "I knew I was going to perform to the best of my ability. I just recovered real quick.

"We're all taped up and bruised up, but I don't think we could have missed this for anything."

And that was the inspiration for me, to see all these players and coaches taking the games so seriously and putting on a show in their final appearances of 2006.

Cindee Welch, married for 28 years to Canyon Coach Harry Welch, tried to explain why her husband would devote seven consecutive months to coaching football, sacrificing vacations and who knows what else.

"They played their hearts out and it means everything to him to spend time with these boys," she said. "There's nothing better."

Long after the final game had been played, each Canyon player got to pose for a photo holding the Division I championship trophy.

J.J. DiLuigi, the running back who rushed for 138 yards against De La Salle and ended up scoring 82 touchdowns over the last two years, had a smile of satisfaction across his face.

"This is the greatest senior finish I could ask for," he said.

DiLuigi said he was fired up after Orange Lutheran players were leaving the field and exhorted him to go out and win one for "SoCal."

Later, Canyon players were chanting "SoCal sweep," signifying three victories by Southland teams over Northern California teams.

Perhaps a rivalry is brewing. Perhaps a special yearly event that serves as a tribute to high school football at its best in California has been born.

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eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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