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All-Star Game a happy reunion for coaches
GARDEN GROVE – It was an invitation full of hope and friendship but pitted against enough obstacles that some probably believed it was unlikely to happen.
On the morning of Nov. 14 last fall, Rancho Alamitos football coach Mike Enright sent text messages to his fellow league coaches at Garden Grove, Los Amigos and Santiago inviting them to celebrate at a local restaurant that night if each team, along with the Vaqueros, won their first-round playoff game.
The proposal set the time for midnight, a fitting stroke of the clock for a group seeking to bring a football fairytale to life. An under-appreciated league in central Orange County goes 4-0 to open the playoffs?
“It’s a hard thing to do,” Enright said. “It’s a hard thing to do for any league.”
But the Garden Grove League coaches believed the feat was possible, and Enright’s invitation turned prophetic. The coaches celebrated a 4-0 sweep late that night and strengthened the bond that has them united again for Thursday’s 56th annual Brea Lions Orange County All-Star Game at Orange Coast College at 7:15 p.m.
When Enright takes the field as the North all-star coach, three of his top assistants will be his league brethren from last season’s playoffs: Garden Grove’s Ricardo Cepeda, Los Amigos’ Carl Agnew and Santiago’s Brandon Croft.
Enright recruited the trio, along with Bolsa Grande coach Matthew Brinkerhoff, during the spring, pushing past the league rivalries to connect for the all-star game.
“I like to surround myself with people that I enjoy,” Enright, 51, said. “In the big scheme of things, it’s a game. If you don’t enjoy it, then don’t do it because there are a lot more important things in life.”
Enright picked talented coaches for the game.
Cepeda, the North’s defensive coordinator, led Garden Grove to the CIF-SS Southern Division title with a 35-0 victory against Rancho Alamitos in the final.
Cepeda said he felt honored by Enright’s offer to lead the North defense since the Argonauts shut out three of four opponents in the playoffs.
“That was a little bit of respect,” said Cepeda, whose North defense will include Garden Grove defensive backs Austen Christian and Alejandro Ceja and linebacker Reily Hoalton.
Agnew, the North’s running back coach, guided a physical Los Amigos squad to the second round of the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season. He also produced the Orange County’s leading rusher, North running back Moby Contreras, who racked up 290 yards in a 48-13 first-round victory against Magnolia.
Santiago was the underdog of the league. Croft, the North’s linebackers coach, led his at-large selection Cavaliers against Orange Coast League champion Estancia in the first round.
But a few Garden Grove League coaches liked Santiago’s chances. The Cavaliers played Los Amigos tough and featured a solid rush defense.
“To be honest, I thought Santiago could beat Estancia,” Cepeda said.
For a league that sometimes might be overlooked, the Cavaliers’ 13-9 upset against Estancia capped a magical night. The Garden Grove was the only Orange County league to go 4-0 in the first round of the playoffs.
“It was amazing,” Agnew said. “Now, (critics) can’t say much.”
Enright’s season with the Vaqueros was packed with emotion.
The team wore “MW” stickers on its helmets for Morgan Wilson, the Esperanza tennis player and track athlete who died last July after suffering cardiac arrest.
Enright’s best friend is Wilson’s father, Scott, also Loara’s athletic director.
Just a few weeks after Rancho Alamitos opened its season against Loara – which also wore the stickers – Enright’s mother, Karen, 70, died from cancer.
“My mom was a complete football mom,” he said. “She passed away the Friday of our bye week (in September). She wanted to make it very clear to me that I was not to miss a game or anything else because of her.”
Rancho Alamitos’ playoff run was thrilling but didn’t do much to settle nerves.
The Vaqueros and North quarterback Nick Brown rallied from an early 21-point deficit against Saddleback in the first round to post a 50-34 victory. They then upset No. 2 seeded Westminster, 34-29, after a late Lions touchdown was nullified and edged No. 3 Canyon, 34-28, in overtime in the semifinals to reach the CIF finals for the first time since 1993.
“Winning the playoff games like we did, it was just nuts,” Enright said.
In the championship, Rancho Alamitos faced a Garden Grove team making its fifth finals appearance in six seasons. And despite the shutout, Brown finished the season with 4,120 yards and a county-record 52 TDs in Enright’s no-huddle spread attack.
The prolific offense added to Enright’s family legacy. His great-uncle, Dick Enright, coached record-setting quarterback Todd Marinovich at Capistrano Valley and NFL Hall of Famer Dan Fouts at Oregon.
“A lot of guys go to a book. I can make a phone call,” Enright said of his relationship with Dick, who lives in Fallbrook and might attend Thursday’s game.
Enright said he and the Vaqueros were emotionally drained for the finals but grateful for the fairytale season, especially the league’s performance in the first round.
“I’ll always remember this past season,” he said. “This (all-star game) is the like the exclamation point on the whole thing.”
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