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El Toro's Manning is 2011 offensive player of the year
LAKE FOREST – Conner Manning didn't know what to expect from himself entering the season.
The quarterback's perplexed outlook related to El Toro's new offense. The Chargers had switched from a pro-style attack to an up-tempo, no-huddle spread offense.
"With the whole new offense, I didn't know what to expect," Manning said. "(But) after the first couple games, we kind of got a sense of what we could do offensively and we just kept getting better."
Manning and El Toro's offense made so much progress, the junior finished with statistically the greatest passing season in Orange County history.
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Manning smashed Matt Barkley's single-season county record for passing yards with 4,219, about 650 more yards than the former Mater Dei standout had as a junior in 2007.
Manning also threw a county-record 41 touchdowns, edging Jason Whieldon's single-season standard of 40 for Orange Lutheran in 1999.
For his efforts, Manning is The Register's offensive player of the year.
"He's really a special guy," said quarterback guru Bill Cunerty, the former Saddleback College coach who worked privately with Manning before the season.
"I think he's just a fast learner. ... He's gotten better every week. He looks so confident running that offense."
Manning broke the 300-yard passing barrier for the first time with 310 against Canyon on Sept. 16. He did it again a month later with 338 against San Juan Hills.
But his final six games left the lasting impression. He averaged 375 yards per game to help propel El Toro to its first CIF finals appearance since 1995.
In the first round of the CIF Southwest Division playoffs, Manning completed 33 of 43 passes for 444 yards and five touchdowns in a 54–30 victory against Esperanza.
Two weeks later in the semifinals, he went 32 of 49 for a season-high and school-record 458 yards and two touchdowns as the Chargers eliminated four-time defending CIF champion La Habra, 47-41.
"Manning is worthy (for player of the year) for sure," La Habra coach Frank Mazzotta said in an e-mail.
In the finals, Tustin snapped Manning's streak of 300-yard passing games at five but Manning threw for 289 yards and four touchdowns.
The Tillers intercepted Manning twice in their 35-28 victory, but showed respect for their opponent afterward.
"He's a great quarterback," Tustin linebacker Edward Tandy said.
El Toro switched to its high-tempo offense after Chargers coach Robert Frith attended a clinic at Louisiana Tech. The Chargers began installing the offense in February, so they were ready by spring practice.
"It's not that complicated of a system," Manning said. "We run a lot of short routes. We just try to play catch a lot, and then later on, we'll take a big shot (down field).
"The whole part of the offense is tempo. We just try to wear them (the defense) out."
Manning's accuracy helped him master the offense. He completed 62 percent of his passes. He was intercepted only eight times despite throwing 527 passes, likely a county record.
Manning also distributed his passes to several receivers. Four wide receivers and running back Jacob Furnari each had at least 40 receptions.
"It was a great year but without all my teammates, there's no way," Manning said.
Manning split time at quarterback as a sophomore with Mack Spees, a touted transfer from Virginia who is now at James Madison.
This season, Manning felt more comfortable but also excelled under the tutelage of a new assistant coach at El Toro. Geoff Buffum, who has coached professionally in Europe and at Saddleback College, arrived at El Toro during the spring.
"He knows football and he's taught me a lot," Manning said of Buffum.
Manning knows he needs to continue to improve. He has already identified adding weight as a top priority for the offseason. He also hopes to attend a camp at his favorite college, Notre Dame.
The competition will be tougher for El Toro and Manning next season. The Chargers will return their top five receivers but they will be part of the South Coast League and likely the Pac-5 Division.
"It's going to be a big challenge," Manning said of the schedule, "but I'm just excited to play at a higher level. It's a good challenge for me."