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Religion is no stopping point for Loth at Crespi

August 30, 2008|Eric Sondheimer

Once a month, Ben Loth, a 6-foot-5, 275-pound offensive tackle, defies conventional wisdom by attending mass at Encino Crespi High.

He sits respectfully as teammates take communion and listens intently as a priest reads passages from the Old Testament in Hebrew scripture.

It's a mandatory requirement to attend mass at the all-boys Catholic school, and Loth finds a way to fit in even though everyone knows he's Jewish.

"Crespi has been very accommodating," he said. "You go to mass and be respectful."

Although his father, David, is a part-time cantor, educational and athletic opportunities persuaded Loth to try the Catholic high school experience, and he's flourishing while maintaining his Jewish identity.

Besides his 3.4 grade-point average, he has become a giant presence on the football field, using his size-16 feet and growing strength to emerge as a big-time college prospect entering his junior season, which begins tonight in St. George, Utah, when Crespi faces Layton (Utah) Northridge in its season opener.

"When it's all said and done, he'll be playing on Saturdays in big games," Coach Jeremiah Ross said.

What's startling about Loth is that he's still in the infancy of his football career, having never played the sport until the day he showed up at Crespi as a freshman because he was always too big.

"I had never put on a pair of shoulder pads in my life," he said.

It was a challenging first season playing for the freshman team. Plenty of times he didn't know what he was doing.

"There was a big learning curve. The first few games, I was kind of lost in the clouds," he recalled. "Toward the end, I started to get it."

Last season, he started all 14 games for a varsity team that lost to Long Beach Poly, 13-6, in the Pac-5 Division championship game.

That was the game Loth faced his most talented opponent, defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, a 6-1, 280-pound senior who helped give Loth a preview of what he might encounter at the next level. Casey is now a freshman at USC.

"It was the only time I felt myself moving more than I like to be," he said. "We'd down-block on him, and he was very difficult to move. It was a good experience. I learned tons in that game. It was the fact I have to work that much harder. I learned you got to hit him before he hits you because if you're the aggressor, you're going to be in better position. If you're the one getting hit, usually you'll be the one going down."

All summer, whether spending time in the weight room or working on blocking techniques on the practice field, Loth focused on doing the little things that separate good players from average players.

He'd show up on time, listen to his coach's instructions, test himself to the limit and give that extra drive when he got tired.

It all fits in with his makeup of constantly seeking knowledge, doing his best and being respectful at all times

"We have very strong morals in my family," he said. "It's important. It's just something we do naturally. You don't do the wrong thing. You present yourself well, you're courteous, you're nice to people."

Except on the football field. There, he changes personality. Loth has come to love the sport because of the competition in the trenches.

"It's a punch, punch, drag-down, knockout battle," he said. "You have to improvise. That's why football is such a great sport. The whole line shifts and all of a sudden you're going someplace else. As long as you know what you're doing, even with the shift, you'll be fine.

"And the biggest thing is having all five guys on the line on the same page doing the same thing."

Any initial concerns Loth had about being Jewish and attending a Catholic school have vanished.

His religion teacher, Mike Suppan, said, "He might be more respectful than a lot of Catholics. It is a sensitive thing, and we try to be sensitive about other religions."

Among Crespi's student body of 600, the Jewish population is estimated at less than 30.

Several play football, and one of Loth's line teammates last season was Buddy Fishman, who used to joke with Loth "about having the right religion."

As for his son attending mass, Loth's father said, "I just told him to look at it as a history lesson."

David Loth is constantly receiving questions from friends wondering why his son is attending a Catholic school.

"They don't know what quite to make of it," he said.

The answer comes when watching Loth flatten a linebacker during a football game.

He's comfortable in all settings.

--

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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