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St. Monica's football team wasn't in it to win it, until it did

The rag-tag squad produced some of the worst football in state history, losing 37 straight games. But a new coach with a creative approach sparks a surprising turnaround.

November 19, 2010|By David Wharton

A few minutes before 5:30 p.m., a park supervisor walks over and tells the St. Monica High football players to wrap things up.

There is still much to do, more drills, more conditioning work, but the Mariners have run out of time.

With no stadium of their own, they practice at a city park beside Santa Monica Airport, scrimmaging amid the roar of approaching planes. Now, they must give way to a girls' youth soccer team waiting on the sideline.

"We only have the field for two hours," their coach, Larry Muno, says. "That's a problem."

Not that Muno and his rag-tag squad complain too loudly — they are glad to be practicing anywhere in mid-November.

Over the last five years, this small Catholic school produced some of the worst football in state history, losing 37 straight games. The team was so bad it struggled just to fill the roster.

"Guys didn't have it in them," receiver Sam Holguin recalls. "They didn't have the motivation."

All of which makes this season feel miraculous.

St. Monica won five of its last six games to capture the Santa Fe League title and now joins the best teams from across Southern California in the playoffs.

Even the park supervisor has heard the news, pausing before he returns to his office.

"Good luck," he calls out.

The tale of the Mariners' resurrection begins with a group of downtrodden athletes, a man who had never coached tackle football before and a philosophy that might make the game's purists cringe.

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Looking back at videotape of the darkest days, Sam describes his team as if it was a collection of zombies trudging through games. Sometimes the Mariners lost by dozens of points. Other times they committed crucial fourth-quarter errors.

Each week, players convinced themselves the losing would end. They told classmates that a victory was imminent.

"Then you'd come back to school on Monday knowing you had been blown out again," says Tommy Murray, a former running back who graduated last spring. "You had to go right back to practice. … It was so frustrating."

As the defeats piled up, stretching from 2005 through 2008, some of the school's best athletes shied away from football.

"I knew they were pretty bad," senior Matt Partyka says. "So I just played soccer."

St. Monica has never been an athletic powerhouse. It isn't large enough, not with fewer than 600 high school students attending classes on a campus that dates to the 1930s and sits blocks from the ocean in Santa Monica.

Still, it galled some administrators and alumni to see the team wallow. Three head coaches came and went in as many seasons.

"We couldn't find the right set of coaches," school President Thom Gasper says. "They would get frustrated when they didn't see immediate success."

The futility ended with a 21-19 victory over Salesian High in the final game of the 2008 season. The Mariners hugged and cried as if they had won a championship.

In fact, they had finished 1-8, and their coach at the time was subsequently fired. St. Monica was still looking for that elusive combination of skills and patience.

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Football ran in his blood.

The son of an NFL agent who once represented Joe Montana, Muno became a star linebacker at Bishop Montgomery High in Torrance during the 1980s and accepted a scholarship to Rutgers.

But four years at the college level burned him out.

"It can become a job," he says. "After I graduated, I got into a variety of different things."

He taught golf. He ran a trucking company. In 1994, he became a firefighter in Vernon.

A few years later, his wife wanted to get their two children into a Catholic school in Manhattan Beach and, hoping to gain favor with administrators, volunteered Muno to coach the seventh- and eighth-graders in flag football.

Slowly, an old flame rekindled.

"We had seven kids when I first started," he says. "The next year we got up to nine. And then we started winning."

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles hired him to oversee athletics at all of its grammar schools in 2005. Muno drew up schedules and arranged for referees in what amounted to a second full-time job. Then, in 2009, a friend suggested he interview for the St. Monica opening.

Muno figured he could keep working at the fire department if he saved his vacation days for the season.

School officials were not concerned. Nor did they care that he had no experience coaching the game with helmets and shoulder pads.

"I liked the type of person Larry was," Gasper says. "I thought he had the ability to motivate kids."

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Not long after arriving at St. Monica, Muno attended a soccer game. Afterward, he asked the players whether any of them might be interested in signing up for football.

"I went over to hear what he had to say," Partyka recalls. "It kind of interested me."

The new guy possessed a solid brand of charisma that bypassed rah-rah and went directly to straight talk. But Muno was banking on more than his personality. A decade of working with kids had convinced him that a new generation of athletes required a new approach.

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