Spartans power across gridiron

Interception of a ball.
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© Iris Smoot/Acorn Newspapers
Rio Mesa High’s Matt Espinoza, left, leaves Joey Velladao of St. Francis in the dust during the Rio Mesa Passing Tournament and Linemen Challenge last weekend. © Iris Smoot/Acorn Newspapers
Quarterbacks parade rocket arms. Wide receivers flaunt fleet feet. Linebackers and cornerbacks display cobra-quick reflexes.

The linemen get to . . . stay home.

At the annual Rio Mesa Passing Tournament and Linemen Challenge, however, everyone gets attention, including the boys in the trenches.

“Skilled guys get to have fun, so we had to build something for linemen,” said Rio Mesa football head coach Bob Gregorchuk.

“For a while, it was all about linemen and now we have incorporated the passing tournament. Everyone gets to show off their skills.”

Agoura, Calabasas, Oak Park, Newbury Park, Simi Valley, Royal and Rio Mesa high schools participated in last weekend’s tournament.

Valencia took first place in the 19-team hogs tournament that featured nine events testing speed, strength and teamwork.

St. Bonaventure went 5-0 in passing games while Rio Mesa and Royal had respectable 4-1 records.

Here’s a closer look at the local participating teams:



The hogs tournament has an element of fun—just don’t tell Rio Mesa’s big boys.

The host Spartans had this tournament circled on their calendars.

“We’ve been practicing these events since spring ball,” said incoming senior defensive nose tackle Jacob Atwater. “We practiced because we want to be the best.”

Rio Mesa’s “A” team earned sixth place overall and won the bag relay. The Spartan “B” squad was 16th.

Kaleigh Marquez, a senior-tobe offensive tackle, said hosting the tourney was hectic.

“It can be challenging setting up the events and then participating in them,” Marquez said. “We throw a pretty good linemen challenge every year. We have the obstacle course that a lot of schools don’t have. Everyone had fun.”

RMHS head coach Bob Gregorchuk said his Spartan linemen displayed speed.

“Our strength this year was in the running events,” Gregorchuk said.

“We had the best time in the heavy bag relay and we were at the top of the five-man relay. We didn’t do so well in the strength events.”



Agoura didn’t participate in the linemen tourney. The Chargers, however, had a lineman in the passing competition.

Sean Pawlak, a bulky defensive tackle and occasional H-Back, accomplished what most linemen only dream of—scoring a touchdown.

Pawlak made a rare appearance in the backfield against Calabasas. Pawlak went up the middle for a fake handoff and proceeded on a crossing pattern to the right side of the end zone.

An incoming senior, Pawlak bobbled the football multiple times before completing the reception.

“I knew it was coming,” said the 5-foot-10, 230-pound Pawlak. “I was surprised I started bobbling it. I didn’t mean to do that. It was kind of nerve-racking, but I got it.”

Teammate Shawn Kagan, at 5-foot-4, doesn’t have the size to be a lineman, but the senior-to-be is tough.

Kagan competed with a large cut on his back from turf burn in a previous tournament. Kagan’s jersey aggravated the wound against the Coyotes, forcing him to play shirtless.

That didn’t stop Kagan from snagging multiple touchdowns.

“My cut was hurting,” Kagan said. “I think it got infected, but I was fine.”



It was almost a given that Luca Bruno would excel in the linemen tournament.

The star defensive lineman for Oak Park won first place in the rock throw and dominated in the bench press event—he benched 185 pounds 25 times.

Mark Jacobs, the Eagles’ linemen and linebackers coach, said Bruno’s solid effort wasn’t the only highlight.

“It was good seeing all six guys build team unity,” Jacobs said. “They all worked hard and bonded.

“Many of the fun activities they did are things you don’t get a chance to practice during the season. I’m glad they got to enjoy this event before the season starts.”

Bruno, Sam Heald, John Balen, Kevin Cohen, Brandon Myden and Grayson Jordan placed 12th overall. They snagged fourth in the truck push event.



Football is a complicated game. For Blake Littman, it seemed simple.

Littman, the former Calabasas team manager, took stats last year. He’s exchanged pencil and paper for pads.

“I decided to do it for the love of the game,” said Littman, an incoming junior who’s vying for snaps at cornerback.

“I was manager last year with the team and I got to know the players well and got to know the plays. I thought, ‘You know what, why not try?’”

The 5- foot- 4 Littman is quickly learning about football’s tough love.

Littman played one drive against Royal.

He often looked lost on the field while coaches and teammates yelled instructions.

“It’s not fun going up against taller and stronger players,” Littman said. “It’s a little hard. I have a lot to do before I can play at the varsity level, but I think I’m getting better.”

Teammate Vince Hutchinson said Littman’s earned a spot on varsity.

“(Littman) was that little kid people used to pick on, but he has a big heart,” said Hutchinson, a running back/cornerback.

“Since Day 1, he was busting his butt to earn a position on the field. He deserves to play because that’s the only way he’ll get better.”



Newbury Park was in a hog fight.

The Panthers seemed outmatched in the tug-of-war against Marmonte League rival Royal.

With offensive tackle Tyler Thompson leading the charge, Newbury Park pulled off an epic comeback.

“We were in a fight,” said Thompson, nicknamed “Clifford the Big Red Lineman.”

“We had to battle back. That shows we can be pushed and persevere. It makes us (linemen) one.”

While pulling on the rope, Thompson’s face turned tomato red—matching his glorious locks. The incoming senior huffed and puffed to topple the Highlanders.

After taking first place at Moorpark’s linemen tournament in June, the Panthers wanted to finish on top at Rio Mesa. Newbury Park settled for third place last weekend.

“We crushed our competition at Moorpark,” said David Anderson, an incoming senior guard.

“We tried our best (at Rio Mesa) and put up a good fight. There were a lot of good teams that weren’t in Moorpark.”

The Panthers placed first in the obstacle and third in the rock throw events.



For the finale of the linemen tournament, players and spectators gathered around Rio Mesa’s main field to watch the popular tug-of-war competition.

The crowd was pumped for the first match between Simi Valley’s “B” team and Buena.

Nerves kicked in for the Pioneers, who haven’t won a tug-ofwar brouhaha in their last four linemen events.

“This was my last tug match, so I wanted to go all out,” said senior to-be offensive guard Jon Teague.

Simi Valley broke the losing streak in an upset victory over Buena, which finished in second place in the hogs tournament.

The Pioneers’ “B” squad struggled, placing 15th. Capturing that tug-of-war victory was sweet.

“This was my fourth hogs tournament and second in Rio Mesa,” Teague said. “I wanted to win badly. I didn’t want to leave high school without a tug win.”

Simi Valley’s “A” team nabbed seventh place overall, finishing second in the bench press.



Royal head coach Kevin Flye raved about new starting quarterback Anthony Couch’s stellar performance in the passing tournament.

Then there was the game against Calabasas.

“I could have sworn he was playing well this morning,” Flye said with a laugh after Couch missed a couple targets against the Coyotes.

Couch, an incoming senior, didn’t play last season to focus on schoolwork.

He has experience playing junior varsity ball as a freshman and sophomore.

“I’m just getting back into the swing of things,” said Couch, who led his team to a 4-1 record.

“I’m trying to get the rust off and learn all the plays.”

Middle linebacker Chad Gunn said he’s tired of 7-on-7 games.

“I like the passing tournaments, but it gets olds,” Gunn said. “I just want to put on the pads already.”

Royal’s “A” linemen placed eighth in the hogs tourney. The Highlanders’ “B” team got 11th.

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