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Lopez brings a new method to Pacifica
Vinnie Lopez remembers seeing everything unravel. Losses to Troy High agitate him still.
No stranger to Orange County football, Lopez the past three years ventured into the area for games as coach at El Rancho High of Pico Rivera. He often left winless, but no worse for the wear.
Lopez can recite from memory the plays responsible for losses in Orange County.
Formerly an assistant coach at local high schools such as Esperanza, Rancho Alamitos, Santa Margarita and Trabuco Hills, Lopez recently accepted the head coaching position at Pacifica High.
“He’s phenomenal,” said Esperanza coach Gary Bowers, a high school teammate of Lopez’s. “I hadn’t talked to him much after we graduated, but we both got into coaching, and next thing you know we’re seeing each other at clinics. He got me ready for this head-coaching thing. … He’s one of the better guys in the profession.”
As an offensive lineman at Esperanza in the mid-1990s, Lopez prepped under former offensive line guru Jeff Bailey, who is Yorba Linda High’s coach.
Lopez then played briefly at the University of Wyoming before injuries cut short his career.
Rancho Alamitos coach Mike Enright coached quarterbacks at Esperanza during Lopez’s years at the school, and when Lopez returned to Orange County after college, Enright offered him a job at Rancho Alamitos.
Lopez spent five years with Enright before coaching multiple seasons on the staffs of former Santa Margarita coach Harry Welch and former Trabuco Hills coach Scott Orloff.
“You take a little of every coach’s coaching style – the good, the bad – and you blend it to make it your own,” said Lopez, who took over at El Rancho in 2012 and increased his win total each year, culminating in an eight-win season in 2014.
Lopez, 38, took some time this week to answer a few questions:
Q. Why Pacifica? Why this job?
A. My first job here was in Garden Grove, as a coach at Rancho Alamitos. I spent five seasons at Rancho Alamitos, and we won a league championship my last year – the year Pacifica went to the Empire (League).
In the back of my mind I said, “If I ever got the opportunity to go there, that’s the place I’d like to be.” There’s a sense of pride and a sense of tradition here that can’t be matched by a lot of schools.
Q. At El Rancho you played Orange County teams every year: Troy, Katella, Marina. Was there a method to that?
A. There was. For me, I just liked playing O.C. schools because I felt like you knew what you were going to get. Guys were well-coached, you were going to get good athletes, and those games were really going to be good litmus tests for us before we got into league.
(El Rancho) hadn’t had a lot of success in the years prior to my arrival, so I knew I had to do whatever I could to prepare us for what was a tough league. We made a lot of strides in my three years there.
Q. Is there much of a difference between the two counties? A style of play difference, maybe?
A. I think there is. I’m a spread guy, and I’ve always been a spread guy. My first year in the Del Rio League … everyone else was power football: wing-T, three tight ends, two fullbacks – just smashmouth football.
When we got to El Rancho, we were the only guys that liked to spread it out. It took a little while for defensive coordinators to figure us out. That’s a big reason we were so successful – we scored a lot of points.
Q. During your three years at El Rancho, it seemed like the quarterback had a very important role in the offense. All three of your kids were seniors and dual threats. Those types of quarterbacks must be important in your system.
A. The first two guys … those guys were more athletes playing the quarterback position. I taught them the reads, I taught them the progressions, but they were glorified running backs back there.
This last year ... he was a prototypical quarterback. He could wing the ball. We’d always been 60-40 percent run-heavy, but this last year we were probably the opposite: 60 percent pass and 40 percent run.
Andrew (Perea) broke the school record for passing. He’s got more yards in one season than anybody else, and he’s thrown for more touchdowns than anyone in school history. With any offense the quarterback is important, but more so in ours because we don’t have a lot of guys in the backfield.
Q. How do you produce talent? How do you get kids to a certain level where they can carry your team?
A. It’s how you simplify the offense. Coaching with Welch at Santa Margarita and talking about it, he would always say “We have six run plays. This is what we do.” It took a lot of the thinking out of the game for the kids.
That’s what we’ve done. We’ve made things so simple for them. … For me, it’s about wanting them to enjoy it, have fun. The kids love it. It’s what they watch on Saturdays: Spread the football out and throw it around. That’s the shift, the evolution of football.
Q. What are the challenges of taking over a program?
A. Getting the kids to buy in. Here’s a new coach, and these kids were with their old coach their entire career. “Do we trust that he knows what he’s doing? Do we trust his system?” … They (will) realize the system works, and they start to feel more confident, and they have a little pep in their step, and they’re carrying themselves differently.
Q. How did you go from 2-3 in league in your first year at El Rancho to 5-0 last year?
A. Really, if you go back and you look at it, we were two points away from being 4-1 that first year. The 2-3 record is a little misleading. … Year One, we really focused on the offense. Year Two, we focused more on defense. Year Three, we had our system in place. The benefit coming here is we know what we do. We know what works. We’re bringing our offense in. We’re bringing our defense in. The lessons I learned over the years, Pacifica is going to reap the rewards.
Q. Do you have expectations for this first year?
A. Our expectation is to compete for a league championship.
Q. How do you do that? Aggressive play-calling?
A. I wouldn’t say I have a written rule like some guys, where we go for it on fourth down, where we onside kick it every time. But, again, going back to my time with Coach Welch, he’s going for it on fourth down on his own 20. Doesn’t matter. The kids learn how to compete at that level all the time, where fourth down doesn’t even affect or phase them when it counts. …
Last year, it’s fourth-and-1 and we have the ball with a little less than a minute left against La Serna. We line up, we go for it and our quarterback gets the first down. Game over.
We just kneel on it and get out of Dodge with a victory. That’s who we are. I’m a little bit of a risk-taker, a little bit of a gambler. But I’m not just going to go out and wing it just to wing it. We’re going to take calculated risks.
Q. Have you had any contact with local coaches since your hiring?
A. I have. Right away, obviously, guys said congratulations, welcome back. They told me it’s an awesome job. They’re excited. They’re saying I’m going to do well, turn it around – just like I did at El Rancho.
Coach Orloff told me once, “Man, if you can win at El Rancho, you can win anywhere.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that. Coaching high school football in Pico Rivera is no different than coaching football in Garden Grove, which is no different than coaching football in Rancho Santa Margarita. They’re all kids, and it’s all about getting them to do what you want and executing. We’ve done that, and we expect to come in here and do the same.
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