Taken from an article from the LA Times

Gone but Not Forgotten: Angelus League, Disbanding After 31 Years, Has More Than Its Share of Memories

May 20, 1992|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER



Hey, it was only a coin toss.

 

That little pregame ceremony that precedes every football game. Nothing to get stressed about.

 

But, hey, this was the Angelus League. Greg Willig, St. Paul High School's quarterback, had only one thought at

that moment in 1987: heads or tails. He was being introduced to the Bishop Amat captains when . . . WHAM-O .

 

 

"This little guy from Bishop Amat hit me," said Willig, who will be a senior this fall at Rice. "There were no words, he just threw a punch. It wasn't that big of deal, just one of those things that happens in the Angelus League." And has been for 31 years. Now, it's all over. Time to say goodbye. 

Gone but Not Forgotten

Come next fall, the Angelus League will be no more. A casualty of the move to regionalize high school leagues.

 

Gone is Mater Dei, to the South Coast League. Gone is Servite, to the Sunset League. Gone is Bishop Amat, to the Del Rey League. Long gone is St. Paul, which left for the Mission League after the 1989-90 school year. They were the core of the league and the hard-core.

 

It was famous and infamous, and now it's just a memory. Nothing will be the same, for better and worse.

 

So, one last time, let's get intense. Let's look at some of those things that just seemed to happen in the Angelus League.

 

Football was king. There was a rivalry every night. And, hey, if you couldn't win the game, you tried to win the fight.

 

"They say it's a Catholic league," Willig said. "But the way we played was anything but Catholic."

 

MACHO, MACHO MEN

 

In Texas, the saying goes, there are two sports--football and spring football.

 

Angelus League officials tried to take that a step further. They tried to make that official policy.

 

In 1971, athletic directors from the six schools met to vote on whether to drop baseball as a league sport. Why? It got in the way of spring football.

 

"The motion lost, but not by much," Mater Dei baseball Coach Bob Ickes said.

 

Football was the Angelus League from its inception in 1961.

 

Mater Dei, led by Coach Dick Coury, ruled the early days. The Monarchs won a Southern Section title in 1965 and reached the semifinals in 1966.

 

They had players such as John Huarte, who won the Heisman trophy in 1964 at Notre Dame, Bruce Rollinson and Eric Patton.

 

Everyone wanted to beat Mater Dei, but none more than Servite and St. Paul. The rivalries between those schools made Angelus League football intense and volatile.

 

Those games often brought out crowds in excess of 10,000 and violence was not uncommon.

 

"When I was a sophomore at St. Paul, we beat Mater Dei, 7-3, on a Thursday night," said Mark Paredes, who graduated in 1970. "The next day at school, we were sent to the gym during first period for a postgame pep rally. After that, they gave (the students) the rest of the day off. That's how big it was."

 

Gasoline was thrown on that fire in 1967. Bishop Amat, St. Anthony and Pius X were brought into the league.

 

"The principals wanted to form a super Catholic football league, so they took all the powers and put them in the Angelus League," said Tustin football Coach Marijon Ancich, who was coach at St. Paul for 18 years. "They got what they wanted."

 

Bishop Amat didn't exactly get an open-arms welcome. In the Lancers' first meeting with one of the Big Three, they were routed by Mater Dei, 36-7.

 

"I think we all scoffed at the idea of Amat joining our league," Paredes said. "When Mater Dei destroyed them, we said, 'There it is, you're in a real football league now.' We couldn't wait to get a shot at them."

 

They should have.

 

It was the final game of the season. St. Paul, which would be Major Division co-champions that season, went to Bishop Amat to give a lesson.

 

"We ran on the field, this supposed mighty juggernaut, and we start slipping and falling," Paredes said. "There was sawdust on the field that I swear was about ankle deep. They claimed that it was the only way to dry the field. We felt it was to slow down our running game. It hadn't rained all day."

 

Innocent or guilty, the Lancers--led by a sophomore quarterback named Pat Haden--tied the Swordsmen, 14-14.

 

A rivalry had been born.

 

"After that, it was war," said Paredes, who is now head coach of those hated Lancers.

 

The Haden Era increased the intensity. He and long-time friend J.K. McKay, son of then-USC Coach John McKay, became one of the top passing combinations in Southern Section history.

 

The Lancers reached the Major Division championship game in 1969 and won the title in 1970. But nothing mattered more than beating St. Paul.

 

"It was an incredibly intense rivalry," McKay said. "There seemed to be actual dislike for each other."

 

Haden and McKay split with St. Paul during their final two years.

 

As juniors, they beat the Swordsmen, 34-11. The following year, St. Paul--led by Jamie Quirk, now an Oakland A's catcher--won, 34-14, in front of an estimated 15,000 spectators at Mt. San Antonio College.

 

"To me, there was nothing more fun than high school football in the Angelus League," said Haden, who played at USC and for the Rams. "I enjoyed the game less and less at each level. In high school, it was pure and simple."

 

Well, simple anyway.

 

"We had a nickname for Amat," Willig said. "They were 'The Slime.' "

 

NOT-SO-FRIENDLY RIVALS

 

Down the road in Orange County, Servite and Mater Dei left a little purity behind as well. Being so close, they were natural rivals.

 

"I just loved beating up on Mater Dei, just because they were Mater Dei," said former Servite running back Derek Brown, now at Nebraska. "The way they acted bothered me. They always thought they could beat us. Wrong."

 

In the early 1980s, Servite had the premier program in the league and the Southern Section.

 

They pulled off one of the biggest upsets in county history when, as a wild-card team, they beat No. 1-ranked Edison in the first round of the 1981 playoffs. It ended the Chargers' 32-game winning streak.

 

The next year, Servite won the first of back-to-back Big Five Conference (now Division I) championships. The Friars were led by Steve Beuerlein, another in a line of the league's star quarterbacks.

 

Haden was the first of the great throwers in a league that had been dominated by power football. Ed Luther (St. Paul), Paul McDonald (Bishop Amat), John Sciarra (Bishop Amat), Turk Schonert (Servite) followed and all later played professionally. Todd Marinovich spent two years at Mater Dei, then transferred to Capistrano Valley.

 

Beuerlein, who is now with the Dallas Cowboys, threw for 2,244 yards in leading the Friars to a 12-1 record in 1982. Their only loss was to Cincinnati Moeller, then considered the best high school team in the nation.

 

The moment Beuerlein will always remember happened on the night he walked off the field in the third quarter with Mater Dei devastated in his wake.

 

The game was for the league title and the fire code was trampled at Santa Ana Stadium. Approximately 12,000 fans squeezed into the 10,000-seat stadium. Homer Smith, an assistant coach for UCLA who was recruiting Beuerlein, had to climb the fence to see the game.

 

"I remember there were priests who had to climb the fence that night to get in," Mater Dei basketball Coach Gary McKnight said.

 

Beuerlein's first pass was intercepted by Kevin Conway, who returned it for a touchdown. But the Monarchs' euphoria was brief.

 

Beuerlein, who went on to play at Notre Dame, completed 22 of 33 passes for 343 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-7 Servite victory.

 

"I remember coming off the field in the fourth quarter and looking into the stands," Beuerlein said. "Our side was going crazy and their side was totally hushed. I liked that."

 

What Beuerlein did to the Monarchs through the air, Brown did to them on the ground.

 

He set a single-season county record with 2,301 yards as a senior in 1988. He had some of his best performances against the Monarchs.

 

After Brown had a 246-yard, five-touchdown performance as a senior, Mater Dei Coach Chuck Gallo said, "I'm oh-so-happy to see him graduate. I'd pay for his college education. He must have run for 700 yards in three games against us."

 

Not quite, Chuck. Brown managed only 696 in the three games.

 

But what goes around comes around and Mater Dei is back on top.

 

The Monarchs have won the past three meetings and were Division I champions last season. Quarterback Billy Blanton threw for 3,485 yards and 36 touchdowns, both single-season county records, in leading them to the section title.

 

"This was the best high school football in the United States for years," Ancich said. "Now it's fallen off. Football was always a way of life at those schools. But the focus has shifted. Kids are interested in other sports."

 

THE FAT MAN COMETH

 

The main "other" sport is played indoors.

 

Looking like Sidney Greenstreet with a whistle, the rotund McKnight descended on the Angelus League basketball scene in the fall of 1982. Nothing has been the same since.

 

Until then, basketball in the Angelus League was known almost as much for free-for-alls in tiny, hot gymnasiums, as it was for the game itself. Servite had been the dominant basketball team, but the Friars had not won a section championship.

 

McKnight and the Monarchs took the league to another level. In 10 years, Mater Dei is 286-26 and has won seven section titles and two state championships.

 

"Let's say that it raised the intensity to new heights when McKnight came in," said Beuerlein, who also played basketball.

 

The rise of the Monarchs was hardly benign. There was plenty of finger pointing and accusations of undue influence.

 

Opposing coaches were incensed when Tom Lewis (Capistrano Valley) and Mike Mitchell (Gahr) transferred to Mater Dei in 1982. Also in school was JV player Stuart Thomas, who had transferred to Mater Dei while his brother stayed at Fountain Valley.

 

Pat Barrett, who had coached Lewis at Capistrano Valley, Rich Schaff, who had coached Mitchell at Gahr, and Wayne Merino, who had coached Thomas, all showed up as coaches at Mater Dei. People screamed "package deal," and the South Coast League filed an official complaint with the Southern Section.

 

Nothing was ever proved.

 

The furor has died, some, in recent years, but the Monarchs keep on winning.

 

"In the early days, people were pointing at us, saying, 'You recruit,' " McKnight said. "I'm really pleased that it has gone from that to respect. I couldn't point out anyone in the coaching community who has hard feelings toward us today. People are saying that we've done a pretty good job, year after year."

 

Pretty good?

 

With Lewis, Mitchell and Matt Beeuswaert, the Monarchs became the first county team to win the Southern Section Major Division in 46 years. Much of the talent that went through Mater Dei went on to the collegiate level, including LeRon Ellis, now with the Clippers.

 

Mater Dei has won nine league titles in 10 years. Bishop Amat provided the only blotch on that streak by beating out the Monarchs in 1987-88.

 

That season, the Lancers stopped the Monarchs' league winning streak at 55 games with a 70-56 victory at Mater Dei.

 

"I remember pulling up in the bus that night and seeing a sign that said, 'No Game Tickets Sold Tonight,' " Lancer Coach Alex Acosta said. They must have had people five or six rows deep at each end of the court. The place was incredibly loud.

 

"I think that's when the basketball program at Amat got its first recognition. We had always lived in the shadow of the Hadens and McKays before."

 

The Lancers beat the Monarchs again in the rematch to clinch the league title. But their glory was short-lived.

 

Mater Dei defeated Bishop Amat in the Southern Section 5-A championship game.

 

INSULT AND BATTERY

 

The competitiveness between schools didn't always end when the game was over. Part of the league's legacy is a violent one.

 

"One night, we had a basketball game at St. Paul that ended in something of a riot," J.K. McKay said. "There were a lot of people running around looking to get a punch in on Haden and I. They found us."

 

Such events were commonplace during basketball games in the crowded gymnasiums. Servite has the largest gym, seating approximately 1,200. Usually crowds exceeded the capacity.

 

It was always a problem waiting to happen.

 

"These schools were all located in different regions of Southern California," Paredes said. "It was communities slugging it out as much as schools. I can vividly remember our coaches making comments of great disdain about what it must be like to be a Bishop Amat Lancer. You're a kid, you just follow along."

 

It didn't matter what sport was played, if it involved Angelus League schools, it was no-holds-barred.

 

"If it was a horseshoes contest, sooner or later, someone would get clubbed with a shoe," said Esperanza baseball Coach Mike Curran, who played and coached at St. Paul. "I tell you, we used to have some wars. And you should have seen the coaches' meetings to pick all-league teams."

 

Not even the stands at baseball games were safe.

 

"We were playing Amat one time and Jamie Quirk's mom was in the stands cheering," Curran said. "These two Amat guys started mouthing off to her. Well, Jamie's brother Dave, this big defensive tackle, was sitting there and the next thing we knew the bleachers behind home were rattling. Guys were clobbering each other."

 

Yes, sportsmanship often took a holiday and nowhere did it have more time off than on St. Paul's football field, lovingly known as "The Pit."

 

It was a place where visiting players claimed they were spit on by fans . . . and worse.

 

"Teams would come in and get all psyched out by that voodoo and didn't play well," Ancich said. "But a lot of it was exaggerated. It was never that bad."

 

Well, not for St. Paul players. But, if you were on an opposing team, well . . .

 

"Our coaches would always make us wear our helmets from the locker room to the field," Beuerlein said. "We never knew what they were going to dump on us."

 

Fact or fiction, the Swordsmen won 37 consecutive home games at The Pit during a 10-year period. Carson Banning, led by Freeman McNeil, finally ended the streak with a 17-14 victory in 1976.

 

LACK OF RECOGNITION, NOT RESPECT

 

Football and basketball have held the limelight for more than 30 years, leaving little room for other sports. But the talent has been across the board.

 

In 1978, the baseball teams in the Angelus League featured Steve Buechele (Servite), Mike Gallego (St. Paul), Bobby Meacham (Mater Dei) and Mike Witt (Servite). All eventually made it to the major leagues.

 

"Servite was like a Who's Who of baseball that season," Curran said. "Everybody was an all-star."

 

Andy Stankiewicz, currently the New York Yankees' shortstop, was a three-sport star at St. Paul. Andy Rincon, who pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals, also played for the Swordsmen.

 

"We lived in the shadow of football and basketball, but we're climbing," Ickes said. "Guys are now running baseball programs, not just teams."

 

If baseball lived in the shadow, the girls' sports were in complete darkness.

 

There wasn't even an Angelus League for them until the early 1980s. Before that, there was the Sunrise League, which included many of the Angelus League schools.

 

Still, there has been plenty of talent.

 

Mater Dei has had solid girls' basketball teams, although they haven't matched the boys' success. Still, the Monarchs sent several players to college: Jerri Gainy, Mary Gainy, Kelly O'Brien and Mary McCarthy.

 

But the league's most notable female athlete was Lisa Fernandez, a softball pitcher for St. Joseph. Fernandez, now at UCLA, led the Jesters to a Southern Section 4-A championship in 1986 as a freshman and a 5-A title in 1989.

 

She finished her career with 80 victories, 69 of which were shutouts. She also had 37 no-hitters.

 

Mater Dei featured several strong girls' programs during the 1980s, and won a 4-A soccer title this season and a 2-A swim title in 1990.

 

"I think we've been just as competitive as the boys' programs," said St. Joseph Athletic Director Deborah Haley, who coached softball eight years. "But I think we managed to stay away from the outside issues. When the game's over, we leave it on the field."

 

Said Mater Dei basketball Coach Brenda Yecke: "Well, there's been a few cases of over-celebrating. But no fights."

 

GOODBY, AMEN AND FAREWELL

 

In all, Angelus League teams won 30 Southern Section championships--11 in football. There have been shining moments and general embarrassments.

 

But in 31 years, no one can say it has been boring.

 

"It was always a healthy intensity," Willig said, "never life-threatening."

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Statistics by M. A. Wright '79

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