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Oaks Christian Getting a Little Taste of Big Time

School with fewer than 700 students has nationally ranked football team stocked with major-college recruits.

September 01, 2006|Dan Arritt | Times Staff Writer

As the afternoon practice unfolded on the synthetic turf field, a former NFL star running back demonstrated how to cut through blocking pads, while one of the league's most durable linebackers kept an eye on the defensive players.

The most coveted high school quarterback in the country, Jimmy Clausen, practiced his three-stop drop, just as one of the nation's top ballcarriers, Marc Tyler, shared a laugh with his famous father after stumbling over the same blocking pads.

With fewer than 700 high school students, administrators at Westlake Village Oaks Christian School aren't interested in wearing the crown of a national football power, but the Lions are playing the part this season.

Thanks to the maturation of several highly rated seniors, Oaks Christian has catapulted into preseason national rankings for the first time in the school's short history -- Sports Illustrated has the Lions listed at No. 3 in the country while USA Today ranks them 12th -- and has been receiving publicity in sports pages from Santa Fe, N.M., to South Bend, Ind.

"I've never experienced anything like this," said Oaks Christian Principal David Cooper, who came to the school three years ago after 13 years as an assistant principal, teacher and coach at Moorpark High. "We've been highly successful athletically, but the kind of team we're putting out this year, it's amazing talent."

Athletic participation, as a whole, is unrivaled at Oaks Christian, which is located in an upper-middle class area of the Conejo Valley and draws students from the districts of nearby public schools associated with the highly competitive Marmonte League.

Three out of every four Oaks Christian students participated in athletics during the last academic year and every team is supported by a general athletic fund, eliminating the need for participation fees and team fundraising.

The school has one of the few Olympic-sized swimming pools in Ventura County, an all-weather rubber track and synthetic grass for the baseball and softball fields.

As for results, the athletic teams at Oaks Christian have accounted for 15 Southern Section team titles since 2003, primarily at the small-schools level, and have won 44 league championships in 87 different seasons of varsity competition.

Without question, the football team generates the biggest buzz on campus. Because most of the top players have attended Oaks Christian since they were freshmen, school officials have had time to brace for the attention. Nevertheless, accommodating an onslaught of reporters, from local newspapers to national publications, has been a chore.

"The biggest issue is trying to keep the balance," Cooper said. "We're a pretty serious college preparatory high school and not a Division I program. But we're getting some of the attention of a Division I program."

That included increased calls in the off-season from coaches looking to test their teams against the Lions, who will play in Division X this season -- after playing in Division XI in their first four years of varsity football -- and have never played a highly regarded opponent.

Bill Redell, Oaks Christian's football coach, took a conservative approach when contacted by two of the Southland's top teams, scheduling a nonleague game Sept. 22 at Ventura St. Bonaventure, but passing on a home-and-home series against Mission Viejo.

"As early as we were talking about it, nobody goes one year," said Mission Viejo Coach Bob Johnson, who has led the Diablos to three Southern Section Division II titles in the last five years. "I said, 'Why, we'd be glad to play you a second year,' and [Redell] said, 'We're not going to be any good.' "

Redell, who began his head coaching career at Encino Crespi in 1982 and made stops at La Canada St. Francis and the USFL, said a series against the Diablos would convey the wrong message.

"This is an unusual situation to have a team of this caliber," he said of his current squad. "If you play a two-year series with Mission Viejo, you're telling everyone you're a Division I team."

Cooper said he also weighed in on the decision to bypass Mission Viejo.

"We certainly didn't want to send that message that we're going to be the Mater Dei of Ventura County," he said. "I don't think we can sustain that with the vision we have for this school as a whole."

A vision for the school began in the early 1990s, when a wealthy family headed by David G. Price was inspired by the education their grandchildren received and the values they were taught at a Christian elementary school in Pacific Palisades.

Price built his fortune as founder of American Golf Corp., a leader in golf course management. After selling that business, he founded Santa Monica-based American Airports Corp., which manages six airports, including five in Los Angeles County.

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