Dick Haines would give you his opinion even if you didn’t ask for one.
So the veteran coach practically shouted his response to the obvious question after the Vista Panthers defeated Helix 35-7 for the San Diego Section AAA championship and a 13-0 season.
“Hell, yes, we’re the best team in the state!” Haines enthused. By far, added the chorus. Cal-Hi Sports, the only publication to observe and rank the state’s best teams, agreed.
Vista was declared the No. 1 AAAA (largest division) team by the newsletter, equaling the honor earned by Haines’s 13-0 team of 1974, and became only the fourth San Diego team so designated, following the retroactive selections of San Diego High, 12-0, in 1916, and 11-0-1 in 1955.
Was this Vista team the best in San Diego County history?
That’s arguable, but at the very least the Panthers are in the Top 10 and possibly the best from the powerful North County, whose surging population and demographic shift coincidentally began about the time the San Diego Section was formed in 1960.
SCRIBES ‘ CHOICE
John Maffei, who covered area schools over a span of four decades for the North County Times, is in agreement.
“‘Eighty-five Vista was the best by far,” said Maffei, who wasn’t going to diss a few other legendary teams from his newspaper’s circulation area. “Rancho Buena Vista in ‘eighty-nine with a pair of two-thousand-yard rushers (O.J. Hall and Markeith Ross), with (future major league baseballer) Dave Roberts at quarterback was awfully good.
“Oceanside in 2008—the state championship team—was outstanding,” Maffei added. “Cathedral in 2009 with Tyler Gaffney setting records also was pretty darn good.”
THEIR PAL, SAL
Vista outscored opponents this year by an average of 37-9. The ’74 team won by 34-11. The 1989 RBV team’s average score was 44-19. Oceanside’s 2008 margin was 42-14 and Cathedral’s was 48-17 in 2009.
Basic scores give this year’s Vista team an edge defensively. The more esoteric variables, i.e., quality of opponents, injuries, playing conditions, position of the stars and relativity of high or low tides are harder to quantify.
Siasau (Sal) Aunese may have been the difference. A 6-foot, 190-pound quarterback, Aunese was a strong runner, effective passer, and inspirational leader, perfectly suited to run Dick Haines’ option offense.
Of all the great players who have come out of San Diego County, Aunese’s legacy is curiously below the radar.
“Probably because he died so soon,” said Nick Canepa, the longtime columnist of UT-San Diego. “Aunese was as underrated a great player as any who’s ever played here.”.
Fallbrook coaches went so far as asking game officials to check Aunese’s legs for lubricants, bringing meaning to the term “slippery runner.” Aunese rushed for 198 yards in 11 carries in a 28-7 Vista victory.
With Aunese averaging more than 10 yards a carry and handing off to Roger Price, a 1,500 yard runner; Brett Smith, and a fleet of others, Vista’s running attack, fronted by tackle and co-captain Albert Sega, rolled through the playoffs with blowout wins.
Aunese ran for 125 yards in 12 carries, scored from distances of 49 and 28 yards, connected on a 60-yard touchdown pass play with Todd Baird, and Price added 135 yards rushing as the Panthers gained 418 yards in outclassing Helix, an 11-1 team coming in that had just ended Sweetwater’s 36-game winning streak in the AAA semifinals.
GONE TOO SOON
Colorado won a pitched recruiting battle against Nebraska and other high profile college teams for Aunese, who became the Buffaloes’ starting quarterback as a redshirt freshman in 1987.
Aunese led his team to a 7-4 record and was the Big 8 Conference’s Newcomer of the Year. The Buffs were 8-4 in 1988 and poised to make a national championship run in 1989.
But friends and teammates noticed a change in Aunese before the Freedom Bowl loss to Brigham Young in 1988. He was sluggish in practice. His family was alarmed.
Continuous coughing and vomiting finally forced Aunese to seek treatment in February, 1989. Tests showed that he had a rare, inoperable form of stomach cancer. Aunese died on Sept. 23, 1989.
Les Miles, who went on to become the head coach at Louisiana State, was an assistant on Bill McCartney’s staff at Colorado. It was Miles who recruited Aunese.
“Sal was certainly one of the most difficult recruiting battles I’ve been in and he probably was the best player I ever signed,” said Miles.
A walk-on at LSU in 2007 was quarterback T.C. McCartney, the grandson of Bill McCartney. Aunese fathered the child with McCartney’s daughter, Kristy.
36 AND OUT
Sweetwater, riding a 35-game winning streak, was the No. 1 seed in the AAA playoffs and met Fallbrook in the final home game for Terry Rodgers and his senior teammates.
Rodgers was outstanding, rushing for 168 yards in 23 carries and scoring all of the Red Devils’ points in a 20-17 victory before an overflow crowd of 6,500 at Hudgins Field on the Sweetwater campus.
A more difficult opponent loomed for coach Gene Alim’s team.
Sweetwater’s County record of 36 wins in a row came to an end in the semifinals the following week against Jim Arnaiz’s smart and seasoned Helix Highlanders.
Helix executed a brilliant game plan, gutting it out with a determined running game and rallying behind the leadership of quarterback Jeff Hammerschmidt, the younger brother of Dan, a star on Helix’ 1981 championship squad.
The Scots played to the conditions. The Southwestern College field was soft from recent storms.
Helix stopped the Red Devils when they tried to convert a fourth-and-eight situation at the Highlanders’ 30-yard line in the first quarter and took control of the game.
Hammerschmidt then guided his team on a 70-yard, 16-play drive that consumed more than seven minutes of playing time. Helix moved the down markers five times on third or fourth down, finally scoring on Hammerschmidt’s seven-yard pass to Jeff Exum.
The quarterback ran for a two-point conversion and Helix had an 8-0 lead it wouldn’t relinquish. The Scots’ 15-6 halftime advantage represented the final score.
Hammerschmidt completed 7 of 13 passes for 70 yards and two touchdowns. Kerry Barr burrowed for 95 yards in 26 carries as Helix played a determined game of keep away.
“We discovered they could not stop our lead play we called “Belly”,” said Arnaiz. “Our fullback (Barr) was a tough kid from Ohio and he was a perfect ‘mudder’. He ran with power and had a wide base.
“We just hung tough with defense, the belly play, and sound special teams,” Arnaiz remembered.
Rodgers ran two yards for Sweetwater’s only touchdown and was held to 82 yards in 20 carries. He had rushed for 69 yards in 15 carries in the first half.
Rodgers’s 32nd touchdown gave him 202 for the season, breaking the County record of 194 by Oceanside’s C.R. Roberts in 1952.
“The streak is something I’ll look back on when I’m out of coaching,” a composed Alim told writer Mark Zeigler of The San Diego Union minutes after the final gun. “What we lost tonight was a chance to win the CIF championship. The streak? I don’t care about streaks.”
HORNETS SHORT OF NUMBERS
First-year coach Orlando (Skip) Coons couldn’t believe what he saw at his and Lincoln’s first practice. Only 14 players showed up. Thirty-six eventually filled out the roster.
Overcoming two non-league forfeits, both victories, Lincoln went on to its sixth AA championship, blowing out Crawford, 28-0.
The Hornets dropped a 23-15 decision to the Colts in Week 7. Hornets quarterback Malcolm Glover, blitzed on eight occasions and throwing three interceptions in the loss to Crawford, completed 8 of 13 passes for 221 yards and three touchdowns in the first half in the title game.
Crawford quarterback Tommy Fejarang sustained a knee contusion on the fourth play of the game, nullifying the elusiveness that made him effective in the first encounter with the Hornets. Crawford’s option running game netted only 27 yards in 23 attempts.
For Coons the victory was doubly satisfying. He also had a championship as a player when a member of the San Diego High team that defeated Monrovia 53-0 for the Southern Section Southern Division title in 1959.
COOLER HEADS PREVAIL
A developing incident was taking place after the Crawford-Lincoln game. Because the four teams involved in the AAA and AA title games had to share the two available locker rooms at Jack Murphy, the Lincoln and Crawford squads were forced to wait in the tunnel outside the dressing area before Helix and Vista emerged to go to the field.
“Now we know the first game was a fluke!” Lincoln players shouted, taunting Crawford players. Coaches stepped up and kept order when the Colts began to respond.
1-A IS A-1
Only 18 players turned out for the first football practice at Coronado, but a changing environment did wonders for the Islanders, who left the AA South Bay League for the 1A Mountain-Desert League.
Coronado won six of its last seven games and defeated Mountain Empire 28-6 for the 1A championship after finishing second to the Redskins in league play.
The Islanders, with an enrollment of 712, were the largest school in the Mountain-Desert circuit. Their 6-4 record represented a winning season for the first time since 1979.
UNCERTAIN OFF-SEASON FOR ‘FE
Santa Fe Christian separated from the Christian Unified Schools district, but apparently many students and parents hadn’t heard. There was doubt well into midsummer whether the Navigators would field a team or that the school would remain open.
Only 21 players turned out for fall practice. “A lot of them didn’t know if the school was going to be open,” said coach Dave Kadlec.
Eventually 36 players dressed out and the Navigators, later renamed the Eagles, posted a 3-5 record in the Mountain-Desert League.
Mission Bay’s Rod Weichelt, one of the area’s best in the 177-pound weight class during wrestling season, made his last high school game one to remember.
The 6-foot, 180-pounder went both ways, rushing 30 times for 188 yards and scored two touchdowns as Mission Bay surprised University City, 14-8. Weichelt also made 13 tackles, recovered a fumble, and intercepted a pass.
GUARDED, YOU SAY?
No matter how sturdy, Steve Miner was not going out on a limb. The first-year Madison coach, who built a championship program at Clairemont, was only “guardedly optimistic” the Warhawks would improve on their 1984 season as they moved from the Western to Eastern League.
Since Madison was 0-8-1 the previous year there was a lot of room for improvement. The Warhawks did improve, to 3-5-2.
The Grossmont League finally broke from the past, forming separate AAA and AA alignments.
Granite Hills, Helix, Monte Vista, Mount Miguel and Santana would battle for two available playoffs spots in the AAA lineup, while El Cajon Valley, Grossmont, El Capitan, and Valhalla would have one playoff berth to play for in AA.
SIGN OF THE TIMES
The City Council approved an outlay of $239,000 to buy 2,000 bulletproof vests for all San Diego Police officers in the field. The death of officer Thomas Riggs on March 31 put San Diego ahead of all major U.S. cities in officer mortality rate.
Vista was followed by Clovis West (13-0), Cordova Rancho Cordova (13-0), and Long Beach Poly (11-1-1) in the Cal-Hi AAAA selections… announced crowd was 14,732 for the championship doubleheader at Jack Murphy Stadium…Cal-Hi selected Sweetwater (11-1) sixth in AAA, and Lincoln, 9-3 without forfeits, was seventh in AA… The San Diego Union and Evening Tribune Top 10, recognized through the end of the regular season, listed Vista 1, Sweetwater 2, Granite Hills 3, Helix 4, Crawford 5, Chula Vista 6, Lincoln 7, Morse 8, and Orange Glen and Bonita Vista in a tie for 9… despite having to replace 16 starters and Darron Norris’ 1,515 rushing yards from 1984, El Camino posted a 7-4-1 record and won a playoff game… the Wildcats’ 26-game Avocado League winning streak came to an end in the final regular-season game when San Marcos gained a 7-7 tie… Crawford wideout Lourent (Lou) Coons was involved in a family rivalry. Lou, whose father was the Lincoln coach, was the Colts’ head coach in 2010-11…Vista’s 28-point separation from Helix was the most in the championship game since the Panthers rocked Patrick Henry 32-0 in 1974… Kearny’s coaching staff had more than 30 years of NFL playing and coaching experience…head coach Nate Wright was a standout cornerback for the Minnesota Vikings and cornerback Monte Jackson was a former No. 1 NFL draft out of St. Augustine and San Diego State… a third coach, George Dickson was a halfback on Notre Dame’s 1948 national championship team and coached in the NFL and on the college level for many years…Terry Rodgers’ great season started in Wailuka on the Hawaiian island of Maui…Rodgers rushed for 204 yards in 17 carries and scored 4 touchdowns in a 32-7 victory…