Above: San Gabriel well-represented at Monday’s CIF-SS football press conference. From left are head coach Jude Oliva, assistant coach Matt Lopez, Carlos Purser, Alex Villalobos, Brian Lopez and principal Jim Schofield.
By Miguel A. Melendez, Staff Writer
LONG BEACH – It was business as usual for Monrovia High School football coach Ryan Maddox and Rio Hondo Prep coach Ken Drain, but there stood San Gabriel coach Jude Oliva soaking in the experience of taking part in his first CIF-Southern Section press conference and luncheon Monday at The Grand.
Maddox made his third consecutive trip to the luncheon in four seasons at the helm for the Wildcats (10-3) while Drain has become a staple at these events in just over a decade as Kares (12-1) head coach.
Meanwhile, Oliva could only go off word of mouth from what it was like when the Matadors (9-4) were here in 2003 after making a surprising – yet inspiring – run to the then-Division VII title game against South Hills. Oliva, then an offensive coordinator, now has first-hand experience.
“It was great,” Oliva said. “It was a fun atmosphere. You can see all the great teams and all the great coaches. I was kind of in awe of the whole experience because everyone was nice and had generous things to say to me. I didn’t get a chance to come in 2003. Coach (Keith Jones) told us a little bit about it.”
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San Gabriel faced tough odds against heavily favored South Hills in 2003, and the Matadors again face a tall task when they visit defending champion Monrovia on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the Mid-Valley Division championship game.
Oliva isn’t going in totally blind in his first final as head coach. He got pointers in a short conversation over the phone Sunday with, of all people, Maddox.
“He’s a really, really nice guy,” Oliva said. “I talked to him a little bit and he was just gracious.”
Maddox led a strong Monrovia contingent last week to watch San Gabriel host San Dimas in the semifinals. Few gave the Matadors a fighting chance after losing to the Saints, 59-6, in a nonleague meeting earlier in the season.
San Gabriel put doubters to rest with an impressive 29-28 win.
Maddox knew better than to sell the Matadors short.
“You could definitely tell San Gabriel’s improved a lot,” he said. “We saw San Gabriel and they played San Dimas before we did. San Dimas ate them up and you can just see (San Gabriel) has improved dramatically.”
Rio Hondo Prep looks to win a third division title in 11-man football when it hosts Desert Christian of Lancaster. The Kares are making their fifth trip to the final since moving up to 11-man football in 2003. They won nine 8-man football titles in 27 years before moving up.
Rio Hondo Prep lost in last year’s quarterfinals to Boron and came up short in the rain-soaked Northeast Division final against Linfield Christian at Covina District Field in 2009. The Kares won the title in 2008.
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Rio Hondo Prep, but the Kares did a lot of growing up last year.
“We had a really good sophomore class,” Drain said. “They filled the spots that we needed to fill. I thought it’d be a rebuilding year for us too, but everything fell right for us.”
Desert Christian (11-2) is an at-large team out of the Desert Mountain League. The Knights, coached by Israel Ifeanyichukwu, will not be intimidated playing against established powerhouses, having already taken down top-seeded Bishop Union (14-7) in the quarterfinals and scrappy Salesian (33-22) in the semifinals.
Nerves, however, could get the better part of Desert Christian, which is making its first-ever trip to the final.