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PHOTOS BY SAM GANGWER, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
In what might be the game of the year in Orange County, No. 1 Mission Viejo, led by Coach Bob Johnson, above, takes on No. 2 El Toro and its coach, Robert Frith, below. Both teams are undefeated and trying to win the South Coast League title.

O.C. showdown a new chapter for old rivals

O.C. showdown a new chapter for old rivals

OCVARSITY.COM

Forget six degrees of separation. El Toro football coach Robert Frith wanted just one with Mission Viejo coach Bob Johnson.

It was the day after Frith had been hired to take over a program that went 2-8 in 2008. He held a meeting with his seniors and, upon the advice of alumni, suggested the team restore the "ET" emblem on the side of its helmets.

Consider it Frith's first victory as a Charger.

"I said we could vote. But it wasn't a vote," Frith said. "As soon as I mentioned it, 'No vote, Coach. Let's bring the ET back.'

"When I got here, there were a lot of people reminding me of the good ol' days. A lot of that had to do with Coach Johnson. I thought, that's not a bad thing, that's a good thing. I embraced it. I just wanted this football program to get to a point where people could be proud of it again."

Four seasons, 32 victories, and one move to the South Coast League later, Frith has won over not only the El Toro community but also the coach who originally made the "ET" logo a force in Orange County football.

"He's done a fine job," said Johnson, who won three CIF titles, six league titles and 119 games while coaching the Chargers from 1978-90. "I'm really happy for them. I love that school. It hurt me when they fell on bad times. Last year and this year have been two big years. It's been fun to see. I'm glad to see them winning. I have a soft spot in my heart for that program."

Johnson, the competitor he is, didn't leave it at that. Not when his Mission Viejo team is playing host to El Toro on Friday in a regular-season finale that many are billing as the county's game of the year.

The Diablos are 9-0 overall, 3-0 in the South Coast League, ranked No. 1 in the county and No. 2 in the CIF-SS Pac-5 Division. El Toro, sporting identical 9-0, 3-0 marks, is ranked No. 2 in the county, No. 6 in the division. Though both teams have clinched a playoff berth, the winner of Friday's game will win the league title outright while earning a coveted higher seed in the playoffs.

"I'm happy for them this year, up until now," Johnson said.

This week Johnson is just happy to renew what he once knew as a "mean rivalry." The two schools are located fewer than 4 miles apart, so close that to hop on I-5 to get from one to the other would be an inconvenience.

Johnson, following a three-year stint at Los Amigos, came to El Toro during its 1973 inauguration to be an assistant coach.

"We actually had half-day sessions at Mission," Johnson said. "We'd practice in the morning, went to school in the afternoon that first year."

With Johnson sauntering the El Toro sidelines, especially once the Chargers played their way up to the South Coast League, El Toro and Mission Viejo faced off every year. But the football programs have recently grown far apart, an indirect but undesired result of Johnson's success.

After taking an eight-year head coaching sabbatical to follow the playing careers of sons Bret and Rob, both of whom starred at quarterback for El Toro, Johnson took over at Mission Viejo in 1999. He said he would have happily returned to El Toro had successor Mike Milner not been entrenched there.

The rest is history, or historic, as Johnson has led Mission Viejo to three CIF-SS titles and 10 league titles. The Diablos, like Johnson's Chargers of the '80s, were the county's team of the decade in the 2000s.

"I don't know how tough it is," Johnson said of his success. "It's just what you believe in and what you sell. I don't look at it as tough. I just look at it as coaching football and working hard."

El Toro, meanwhile, has struggled to field a consistent winner, in turn going back and forth between the South Coast and Sea View leagues. The two schools' last meeting was in 2005.

"We've been wanting to play them every year," Johnson said. "How can you get a better rivalry?"

The Chargers' return to glory under Frith, which includes three consecutive playoff appearances and a run to the Southwest Division title game last season, earned them a return to the South Coast League this fall. Along the way, Frith said he has found a friend in Johnson, who became the head coach at El Toro one year after the 35-year-old Frith was born.

"Coach Johnson has been a mentor to me," Frith said. "I appreciate his willingness to always take a little time if I give him a call and have a question for him. I've got nothing but admiration and respect.

"When you think about what you're doing, that's a good model for success. I would love to build a program that is as well established and successful as Mission Viejo."

It starts with the staffs. Four of Johnson's assistants share ties dating back to El Toro. Frith's staff has also mostly remained intact during his successful start.

Chargers baseball coach Mike Gonzales, a three-year varsity letter winner under Johnson in the mid-'80s and the man who initially hired Frith at El Toro, said the two share another key trait: self-confidence.

"It starts at the top with the head coach," Gonzales said. "If a coach believes in what he's doing, and believes in the kids and believes in their system, and believes he can win, and he can communicate that to his kids, the kids are going to be all in."

Frith made a bold declaration to his team this past spring, guaranteeing his team would earn one of the South Coast League's two automatic playoff bids. Never mind that the Chargers were picked by league coaches to finish fourth, or that San Clemente was coming off a Pac-5 title appearance, and that Tesoro and Mission Viejo had reached the Pac-5 semifinals last year.

"If you don't say it, it's not real," Frith said. "If we just go about our business, the kids may not necessarily believe in what you're preaching. I said this is how it's going to be. We're going to make this real right now by making this statement. I want these kids to know that I believe in them."

He sounds just like someone he knows.


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