The Dream Team

first_img AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREWalnut’s Malik Khouzam voted Southern California Boys Athlete of the Week160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! CANYON COUNTRY – Twenty years later, the memories come rushing back as Joe Zacharia revisits Canyon High’s football stadium – a real-life field of dreams for the former star defensive lineman and his talented Canyon teammates who reached the pinnacle of prep success in 1985. That was the year Canyon went undefeated for the second consecutive season and won a then-unprecedented third successive Northwestern Conference title as Cowboys football reigned supreme under a fiery young coach named Harry Welch. “I just loved being on the team with all those great players. It was almost like a big party,” said Zacharia, who decades after terrorizing opposing quarterbacks is a successful businessman and part-time actor. “It’s funny thinking back. We really did some incredible things. The whole team, we lived like celebrities. It was a different era in Santa Clarita, and everywhere we went, we’d wear our lettermen jackets, and everyone knew who we were. “The Valley was a lot smaller then, and restaurants would give us free dinners. We’d get free drinks at 7-Eleven. And there was no shortage of girls, either. We’d have big parties up on Sierra Highway. Back then there was nothing there, and the cops were cool about it.” For Zacharia and his teammates, such as hard-hitting defenders Randy Austin, Cary Claufield, Chad Ziegler and Derek Rusk and big-play running back Lance Cross, star quarterback John Watkins and receiver Jeff Paskwietz, Canyon’s best moments were the autumn Friday nights. The Cowboys allowed just seven touchdowns all season and stretched their winning streak to 38 games with a 9-7 victory over Golden League rival Antelope Valley of Lancaster in the section championship before an overflow crowd at Canyon. “This was one of the greatest high school football teams ever,” said Welch, now 60 and in his second Canyon coaching stint. “I was just so proud of that team, because they worked so hard all season long.” In those days, Canyon practiced four hours a day – sometimes longer, if Welch was in the right mood – and his loyal players lived and breathed Cowboys football with a level of commitment rarely seen these days. “There was a lot of sweat, that’s for sure,” Zacharia said. “Frankly, I remember sometimes wishing I wasn’t there. It always felt like the group of us had something to prove, and, for sure, we were always ready to play. We were so well-coached, plus we all got along really well.” And there were no excuses. Ever. “Oh, no. Never in a million years would one of us say something like, ‘Coach, I need to miss practice because my grandmother is in town’ or ‘My aunt is in town, and we’re all going to Disneyland.’ There was none of that. We couldn’t, and we wouldn’t.” Rusk, who intercepted 10 passes that season and now is a Canyon math teacher, remembers Welch as a taskmaster. “You could probably write a book on how rough Harry was, but he was never rougher than we expected,” Rusk said. “Harry simply made sure we did all the little things right, and that’s the real reason why we won three CIF titles and so many games in a row. He was hard on us.” AN EARLY SCARE The streak nearly came to an end during the opening game against Hart, always the most anticipated regular-season opponent. Canyon won 6-3 but couldn’t breathe easy until a clutch goal-line stand in the final seconds. “Hart could have kicked a field goal but wanted to go for the win,” Zacharia said. “They had the ball on the 5-yard line, and Jim Bonds went back to pass, but everyone was covered. We rushed hard, and he had nowhere to go. He scrambled to his left and might have gained a yard or two, but he was tackled by Randy Austin and Chad Ziegler with no time remaining. It was scary.” After the game, Welch told the Daily News: “That was the most incredible game I’ve ever been involved in. This was a sensational game.” Twenty years later, it’s funny the details Welch remembers, such as a key offsides penalty against Canyon. “I also remember all of the hillsides were filled with people that night,” he said. “It was really something to see.” In those days, Hart and Canyon were neighborhood rivals, but they played in different divisions. Hart won the Coastal Conference title in 1983 – the same year Canyon began its three-year run in the Northwestern Conference – then joined the Northwestern Conference and won the title in 1986. “Hart used to win their title, and we’d win our title, so it was quite a rivalry,” Rusk said. “We always played them in the first game of the year, so it was like a prize at the end of summer.” There were no shopping malls and just a few restaurants in Santa Clarita back then, and Bonds recalled Canyon and Hart players always mixing at the old Mann movie theater in Valencia, across from the William S. Hart PONY baseball complex. “We’d always see each other on the weekends all summer,” said Bonds, who went on to UCLA and now is the head coach at St. Francis High of La Canada. AND THEY CALLED IT THE STREAK After the close call against Hart, Canyon kept on winning, usually by a large margin. Over the next three months, leading to the championship game, Canyon won by an average of more than 30 points per game, and the winning streak – then the longest in the U.S. – began gaining national attention. “Back in those days, the winning streak literally took on a life unto itself,” Welch said. “I remember someone printed T-shirts that said: ‘I went streaking with Harry and the Cowboys.’ And we played tough teams, too. Besides Hart, we always played Notre Dame, Thousand Oaks, Crespi (of Encino) and Antelope Valley, and those were the best teams back then.” Eventually, winning simply became part of Canyon’s weekly routine, like team lunches, pep rallies and pregame rituals. “To be honest, there came a point where we didn’t really even think about the streak,” Zacharia said. “It was other people who made such a big deal about it. We just never thought about losing or that the streak would end. Those thoughts never came into the picture.” Rusk remembers putting the streak in the back of his mind because the players were always so focused from week to week. “We didn’t ever want to get ahead of ourselves, and I don’t think Harry would have let us do so, anyway,” Rusk said. “But now that it’s 20 years later, people still talk about it. My students at Canyon bring it up quite a bit. They’re always asking about the streak and about playing in CIF championships and about the championship rings, stuff like that. They still want to know.” Eventually, the streak reached a state-record 46 games before Canyon was defeated. It remains tied for the longest in Southern Section history. OVERCOMING ADVERSITY Canyon’s third and final section title in 1985 might have been the most difficult, despite such a dominant string of performances during the regular season. One week before the playoffs began, Canyon lost its starting quarterback when Watkins broke his arm. Watkins recalls being absolutely devastated but certain Canyon could succeed in the playoffs without him. “It was a very serious injury. I couldn’t even suit up,” Watkins said. “But my teammates were so exceptional that anyone probably could have stepped in. We didn’t miss a beat, because I knew our defense could stop anybody. I didn’t have a doubt we’d keep on winning.” In stepped untested junior Ken Sollom, who directed Canyon to three decisive playoff victories to set up a championship rematch against Antelope Valley. “Actually, Kenny was a great quarterback, too,” Zacharia said. “He would have started at any other school.” Canyon faced another setback when star linebacker Cary Caulfield was injured in a serious car accident two nights before the title game. He suffered cuts that required 70 stitches and couldn’t play, so sophomore Kevin Doss, who played JV football during the regular season, was called upon to replace him. THE FINAL CHAPTER Antelope Valley seemed to be a team of destiny that year. The Antelopes had defeated two unbeaten teams – Verbum Dei of Los Angeles and Hawthorne – in the quarterfinals and the semifinals. It was a month earlier that Canyon had defeated Antelope Valley by 24 points to clinch the league title, but Welch warned his troops it might be a lot closer this time. “Playing Antelope Valley the second time, we knew a lot of their tendencies, but they knew a lot more about us, too,” Rusk said. Zacharia recalled that he and his teammates didn’t really want to play Antelope Valley – not because there was a concern about losing, but because the Antelopes simply weren’t an interesting opponent. “We’d already beaten them so handily, but Harry explained how tough it is to beat a good team two times in a row,” Zacharia said. “I think we were ready physically, but we just weren’t ready mentally.” After scoring on its opening drive, Canyon managed just a 28-yard field goal by Ron Lindberg the rest of the way. Antelope Valley cut the margin to 9-7 on an interception return for a touchdown with a little more than two minutes remaining. Canyon failed to run out the clock, and Antelope Valley had one last possession in the final minute. The game ended when quarterback Ron Whipple was tackled on his 47 as he tried to drive his team into field-goal range. “To quote Charles Dickens, ‘It was the best of times and the worst of times,’ ” Welch said. “After the final gun went off, some of our fans actually booed us because they didn’t think we ‘covered the spread,’ so to speak. They were disappointed in our third championship because they thought we should have won by more points.” That’s how good Canyon was in those days. “It was an amazing time,” Rusk said. Many of Canyon’s top players from that era played major-college football, including Sollom (Michigan), Zacharia (UNLV) and Austin (UCLA), who later was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons. Some say Zacharia was the greatest defensive player in area history. He still wonders how many sacks he had that season, but Canyon didn’t keep defensive statistics in those days. “I could probably come pretty close to figuring it out if I wanted to,” Zacharia said. “I had five against Serra, four against Saugus, three against Hart, and at least two a game or so in every other game. It probably adds up to about 30.” As the 20-year anniversary of Canyon’s magical 1985 season approached, Zacharia leafed through an old scrapbook his father had put together. “I don’t think I’d looked at it in at least 10 years, but the memories just came rushing back,” he said. “It was wild to read all the articles again and look at the pictures.” He and his teammates have moved on. They’re businessmen and teachers and police officers and accountants now, but they’ll always share a common bond of living the lives of high school football heroes back in the days when there really was such a thing. Gerry Gittelson’s column appears three times a week. He can be reached (661) 257-5218 or at [email protected]last_img read more