|OCVarsity Gridirion: Playoff preview|
Steve Fryer and Carlos Arias travel to La Habra high school to preview the first round of the CIF playoffs. Can the Highlanders finally beat Los Alamitos? Will El Toro bounce back vs. Santa Margarita? Video by Jonathan Khamis, OCVarsity.com
|OCVarsity Gridiron Extra: At-large berths|
Steve Fryer and Carlos Arias travel to La Habra high school to discuss which teams should have made the playoffs and why other teams made it over others. Video by Jonathan Khamis, OCVarsity.com
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La Habra leaves talk to others while it keeps winning
LA HABRA — All season La Habra football coach Frank Mazzotta had bitten his tongue while outsiders openly doubted his team, opining this would be the year the Highlanders lost a Freeway League game. It seemed no one was talking about La Habra's 25-game league win streak or four CIF titles in five years heading into league play.
They overlooked the fact that of the Highlanders' eight losses to county teams since 2007, seven had come to Pac-5 Division teams. The other was in last year's Southwest Division semifinals against El Toro, which is now in the Pac-5.
It makes sense then that Mazzotta waited until moments after La Habra crushed Sonora and clinched its sixth consecutive unbeaten run through league to remind everyone what stood behind Orange County football's quietest dynasty.
"This program has been built on action and not words," he said.
Well, maybe a few.
It was mid-September and La Habra had just lost big to Orange Lutheran, falling to 1-3 on the season, when safety Julian Melendrez approached teammate Michael DeArmond about organizing a players-only meeting. La Habra started out 2-3 in each of the previous two seasons, the result of an annually grueling nonleague schedule, yet still managed to skate through league and make deep playoff runs.
But those teams were different — more seniors, more experience, more talent. This one had lost four expected starters for various reasons in the offseason. Now, it had lost three consecutive games.
The players convened the following Monday for their entire lunch hour. Only the seniors spoke. Everything was laid bare, from the team not playing physical enough to not leaving everything on the field.
What resonated most was that no one considered himself blameless.
"They (the seniors) wanted everybody to try harder, including themselves,' junior defensive tackle/running back Greg Gaines said. "They didn't leave themselves out of it. They knew they had been messing up. That was a sign of maturity. I knew that was serious."
Talk wasn't cheap. La Habra blew out its next opponent, Gahr of Cerritos, although adversity struck anyway in the form of a broken collarbone to standout sophomore tailback Carlos Martin. The following week, the Highlanders trailed rival Troy heading into the fourth quarter before rallying for a 20-19 victory after a lift from Martin's replacements. Backup quarterback Sebastian Salinas, who converted to tailback just a few days prior, ran for the tying touchdown. The 270-pound Gaines barreled in for the go-ahead score.
"That's why Coach Mazzotta is Coach Mazzotta and one of the best in Orange County," Buena Park coach Anthony White said. "He gets his players prepared."
The Highlanders beat their next four league foes by an average of 28.5 points. Four different players have led La Habra in rushing and five have gained at least 200 yards on the season. The defense, which had allowed an average of 31.5 points through four games, didn't allow any of its six final opponents to reach 20.
"The seniors have held it all together," Mazzotta said. "They've kept going, kept pushing, kept fighting. It's a team that's come together and said, I'll do a little extra."
Questions remain whether La Habra can do that in November, despite the fact it has won more postseason games than all of the other county teams since Mazzotta took over the program in 1998. The landscape has drastically shifted in the Southwest Division during the past year, with the addition of the Sunset League, the rise of Villa Park and Foothill, and an unbeaten Tustin team looking to defend its title.
The No. 18 Highlanders (7-3) are the home team Friday, but also the underdogs, in a first-round matchup with No. 17 Los Alamitos (6-4).
"I like it," Mazzotta said. "It's nice to maybe not even be thought of as a contender. That's OK. Nobody's talking about us. I'm enjoying right where we're at."
The two schools are no strangers, having met six times in the past 10 years. The Griffins won all six of those meetings, though a few of those games were extremely close.
La Habra defensive coordinator Cody Verdugo reminded the players of those close calls as they concluded their workout Tuesday. He then reminded them that if they do what they are coached to do, they will win.
The players responded to Verdugo's bold proclamation in typical fashion: They gathered for a team huddle and then quietly departed.
"We're not really allowed to talk," Gaines said.
It's the La Habra way.