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SOUTHERN SECTION FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIPS

Trying to move on

Oaks Christian has grown too big for its league, but finding a new one isn't easy

December 10, 2008|Ben Bolch | Bolch is a Times staff writer.

It was a curious way to end up in a no-win situation.

Westlake Village Oaks Christian High's football team has pounded all comers by an average of 35 points in eight varsity seasons. The Lions recently won 48 consecutive games and have a current streak of five consecutive league and Southern Section titles. And as a result, no one wants to play them.

Their rivals in the Tri-Valley League wish them gone yesterday. Their proposed opponents in the Marmonte League want no part of them. Even some Pac-5 Division powers refuse to add them to their nonleague schedules.

"Some of the bigger schools say, 'Listen, we play Oaks Christian and lose, it makes us look really bad because it's a small school,' " Lions Athletic Director Jan Hethcock said. " 'We beat them? Well, people say we should beat them because it's a small school.' "

It's a small school, yes, but one that has won big since opening in 2000 and playing its first varsity season the following year. With an enrollment of about 750, Oaks Christian attracts some of the top football players from Southern California and beyond because of its sparkling facilities, top-flight coaching staff and winning academics.

Oaks Christian's 2006 state championship team produced 11 Division I players, including quarterback Jimmy Clausen (Notre Dame) and tailback Marc Tyler (USC).

This season's Bowl Championship Series title game includes two former Lions -- Joey Halzle, a backup quarterback for Oklahoma, and Duke Lemmens, a backup defensive end for Florida.

This year's team features some familiar names, with quarterbacks Nick Montana, son of former NFL great Joe Montana, and Trevor Gretzky, son of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, and receiver Trey Smith, son of actor Will Smith.

"You've got parents moving from Canada, the desert area, so their kids can go to school here," Coach Bill Redell said. "I guarantee you there's no recruiting, there's no scholarships. The kids just showed up."

And they win. The Lions have gone 98-8-1 at the varsity level and scored at least 14 points in every game.

"We're not trying to run these scores up," Redell said, "but when it's 49-0 at halftime . . . "

On Friday, top-seeded Oaks Christian (13-0) will attempt to win an unprecedented sixth consecutive section title when it plays host to Gardena Serra (13-0) in the Northwest Division championship. The Cavaliers are the one team in the division that can match the Lions' speed and skill-position prowess, but only one team has so much as stayed close to Oaks Christian in a title game. The Lions defeated Oak Park, 21-16, in the 2003 championship game, but have won their four other titles by an average of 37.5 points.

Hethcock has attempted to upgrade the team's nonleague schedule. Los Angeles Loyola said no thanks, its schedule was full. Santa Ana Mater Dei at first had an opening on its schedule two years ago when Hethcock called. And then suddenly it didn't.

Some might say the Lions themselves are a bit picky. Mission Viejo Coach Bob Johnson said he agreed to play Oaks Christian in consecutive years starting in 2006, but the deal fell apart when the Lions would agree to only one game.

Oaks Christian had to look outside California to find a marquee opponent next season in Sammamish (Wash.) Skyline, which has won consecutive state titles and is ranked fifth in the nation by USA Today. Oaks Christian is in negotiations to play Mission Hills Alemany and Long Beach Jordan.

It's clear the Lions need to look elsewhere for competition. This season, they trounced league foes by scores of 61-0, 56-0 and 54-0 and they've lost only four league games in seven years.

Things became so contentious two years ago that a group of parents from Carpinteria threatened to keep their sons home from school on game day so the Warriors would have to forfeit rather than suffer another embarrassing defeat.

"They were going to short us so many guys that we couldn't compete," Carpinteria Coach John Hazelton said. "We had to say, 'No, don't do that. That's unsportsmanlike.' "

Hazelton formulated a special remedy for his game against Oaks Christian in October. He never punted on fourth down, blitzed on every defensive play and attempted fake punts and onside kicks, figuring it would either result in big plays or a different kind of payoff.

"The strategy wasn't to make a point to Bill or anyone else," Hazelton said. "It was to get to their second-team guys as fast as we could. . . . You end up with your first-unit guys against their second unit, and it's a better game."

Oaks Christian won, 56-0.

The constant blowouts are also disconcerting for Oaks Christian's players.

"It gets to the point where you don't even get up for the games anymore," offensive lineman Tanner Maddux said. "You go into the week and it's hard to prepare because it's not the most exciting game."

Redell acknowledged at a league meeting this year that the situation was untenable for all six Tri-Valley League teams. And so a movement is afoot for the Lions to find a new home.

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