Fryer: JC programs give athletes a new beginning
Many of Orange County high school football's top prospects have made their college choices in recent weeks. Santa Margarita alone has half a dozen players who committed to Pac-12 schools.
What of the football players who are not Pac-12 material, or who are not on the recruiting radar of universities in other conferences? How about the high school guys who don't have the grades for four-year colleges? What are their options if they want to keep playing?
"High school student-athletes and their parents have these big dreams and expectations," Saddleback College football coach Mark McElroy said. "And most of them don't include community college."
Community college can be a springboard to bigger and better things, and a great example is McElroy's football program at Saddleback, which like the county's other four community college football teams has its season-opening practice Thursday. Thirty players on last year's Saddleback roster have advanced to NCAA college football, and most of them to Division 1 or 1-AA schools. Twenty-six of them, McElroy said, got full scholarships or a majority of their college costs covered.
Sometimes an athlete just is not ready for four-year college football. Ben Gomez is a good example.
Gomez played some quarterback as a freshman and sophomore at San Clemente High. He moved to receiver and defensive back his junior and senior years there, and he went to Saddleback College in 2009 as a receiver.
"Ben was a backup receiver here his freshman year," McElroy said, "but we did have him throw three passes as a receiver as a double pass, and he completed all three of them for touchdowns. So before the next year he comes up to me and says he wants to redshirt and compete for the quarterback position in 2011, and that's what he did."
Gomez set several Saddleback passing records in 2011, was a community college All-American and a finalist for California player of the year. He got a scholarship to attend Lindenwood University, a Division II school in St. Charles, Mo., where he is the projected starting quarterback this fall.
Then there is Kyle Long. He's a son of Howie Long, the ex-Raider now a football analyst on TV. Kyle Long got a baseball scholarship to Florida State, which did not quite work out for him, then went to Saddleback College where he returned to football and started at offensive tackle. He now is at Oregon.
Saddleback even has two Iraq war veterans on this season's roster. "Typically," McElroy said, "we have at least one player who served in some branch of the armed services. They're leaders, not rah-rah leaders but guys who always get so much respect from the other players."
Golden West College this year has a player from New Zealand. Nic Purcell played basketball and rugby in his homeland, married a Fountain Valley girl, moved to Orange County and is giving football a try. Golden West coach Nick Mitchell said Purcell, an offensive tackle, will advance to a top college football program.
Fullerton College had 45 players on last year's roster move on to four-year college football programs. Hornets coach Tim Byrnes anticipates more will come from what could be an excellent offensive unit that includes Eli Pleasant, who was an outstanding receiver at Kennedy. Byrnes expects to see Fullerton running backs Jamison Sterns, from Texas, and Floridian Kion Williams attract the recruiting attention, too.
Josh Webb was the county football offensive player of the year in 2010 at Garden Grove. He needed to improve his academic standing, and Santa Ana College offered him the opportunity to do so.
Like the county's other community college programs, Santa Ana also has what are called "bounce backs" – athletes who leave the area for a distant college where it does not quite work out for them, so they return home and enroll in a community college. Mike Sparling was a standout defensive back at La Habra, went to Southern Methodist, but came back and now is at Santa Ana. Thomas Olds was a star lineman at San Clemente, went to Hawaii, did a U-turn, returned to the mainland and is at Santa Ana College.
Louisiana Tech seems to have an arrangement with Orange Coast College. Alec Davis, who went to Mission Viejo High, was at Orange Coast last year and signed with Louisiana Tech where he will block for former OCC running back Ray Holley.
The county's five community college football teams have been realigned this year into the same conference, the National Southern Conference that is one of five community college football conferences in Southern California. Also in the National Southern Conference are San Diego schools Palomar and Grossmont. Saddleback, a conference favorite with Palomar, has been to a state-record 11 consecutive postseason games.
Saddleback opens the season Sept. 1 against Mt. San Antonio College, which last season lost to City College of San Francisco in the state championship game. That opener, like so many others in community college football, is a new beginning.
"Once they get over the disappointment of not getting that college opportunity right out of high school," McElroy said, "here we are for them in community college football, giving these kids that second chance."