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November 13, 2004

Building Tradition

From: Los Angeles Times - Los Angeles,CA,USA - Nov 13, 2004

California School for the Deaf Riverside, which won the San Joaquin League, takes its school-record nine wins into playoffs By Ben Bolch Times Staff Writer

November 13, 2004

About an hour before they took the field Friday afternoon, football players from California School for the Deaf Riverside gathered around a massive bass drum in their cramped gymnasium to stretch.

Spurred by the window-rattling vibrations of each beat, they switched to different positions, often giving out a cacophonous yell as they assumed certain stances.

Then they huddled for a prayer before clutching hands and walking onto the field, where they brought the noise, as usual, during a 34-8 dismantling of Banning Twin Pines that concluded the best regular season in school history.

"The season's not over," Coach Len Gonzales implored, using American Sign Language during a gleeful gathering of players, parents and friends afterward.

Indeed, a team that has recorded a school-record nine victories and won a league title for the first time now has designs on something bigger: the first playoff victory in any sport in the 51-year history of the school.

The Cubs, winners of the San Joaquin League title, are bound for their third consecutive appearance in the Southern Section Division XIII playoffs. The school is 0-5 in previous football postseason appearances.

CSDR has already secured one important victory this season, whipping its cross-state rivals from California School for the Deaf Fremont, 37-3, to record its first victory in the series in 13 years. The Cubs held CSDF to minus-eight yards of offense, ensuring the long-awaited return of a traveling trophy that goes to the winner of each year's game.

"A lot of kids had never seen this school beat Fremont since they were in elementary school," Cub defensive coordinator Todd Silvestri said through a sign language translator. "It was their biggest dream."

Gonzales said he expects to learn in another week or so whether CSDR (9-1) has been selected deaf national champions by a publication for the deaf in South Dakota. The school, which fielded its first football team in 1958, was given the award in 1965 and 1970.

The Cubs' victory over Twin Pines on Friday was remarkably unremarkable except for one play in which a CSDR ballcarrier continued running downfield long after whistles had blown. Of course, he couldn't hear them.

In a pregame ritual that at CSDR has become as common as a coin flip, Michael Butterfield, an athletic assistant who serves as a sideline translator for the deaf coaching staff, had asked officials to wave their hands in addition to blowing their whistles to signify that plays were over.

The Cubs knew how to get things started.

Early in the first quarter, coaches sent quarterback Mark Korn a play from the sideline using a code in sign language. Korn tapped the center and the players broke on the snap. Running back Selwyn Abrahamson took a handoff and ripped off a long run that prompted applause from the crowd of about 100 as teammates gleefully hopped up and down along the sideline.

Nearby, the seven-member cheerleading squad composed of CSDR students yelled audible if somewhat broken chants of "Let's go Riverside!"

The Cubs assumed a comfortable lead in the first half despite some sloppy play. After CSDR yielded a two-point conversion, Cub lineman William Albright nudged a teammate in dismay, as if to say, "What happened?"

His face taut with emotion, Gonzales read his players the riot act at halftime despite a 20-8 advantage. Waving his arms and feverishly motioning with his fingers, he told them he wanted 11 men who were ready to play. The Cubs responded by hooting and hollering, smacking each other on the shoulder pads and helmets in a display of unity as they left the locker room.

CSDR struck for two third-quarter scores, prompting the use of a running clock in the fourth quarter. That was a relief for Twin Pines Coach Jim Bridgman, who had complained at halftime that the timekeeper hadn't been starting the clock on time.

"That first quarter was about 25 minutes," Bridgman told the officials half-jokingly. "I've got a date tonight!"

CSDR might have been headed for another half-century of mediocrity had it not been for Gonzales and his tight-knit staff, which the coach repeatedly refers to as the best in the nation among the handful of deaf high schools. Each of the four coaches played college football, with lineman coach John Castrese having starred along the defensive line for North Texas, an NCAA Division I school.

"We have a similar life experience as the players," said Silvestri, who played for Division III Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., as did assistant coach Keith Adams. "They look up to us. 'Oh, wow, he's deaf, he played football.' There's that bonding."

Gonzales, who played at Gallaudet after graduating from CSDR in 1991, said he always knew he wanted to come back to coach at his alma mater, a public high school of 198 students that draws from the 11 southernmost counties in the state and houses long-distance commuters during the school week.

Junior cornerback Gary Sidansky, from Thousand Oaks, started high school at Oxnard Rio Mesa and played for the Spartans with the help of a translator. Sidansky said the players accepted him as a teammate, but he didn't socialize with them and felt left out on the many occasions when his translator couldn't make it to practice.

After his freshman year, Sidansky transferred to CSDR, where he is among the leaders in Riverside County in interceptions. "I feel more committed to the team," he said. "This is my home."

Success wasn't immediate upon Gonzales' arrival as coach in 2001, though. After going 0-10 in Gonzales' first season, CSDR improved to 5-5 in 2002 before slipping to 4-5 last season.

Bridgman, the Twin Pines coach, recalled a conversation several years ago in which he suggested to Gonzales that the Cubs switch to eight-man football. Gonzales would have none of it.

"It's beautiful," Bridgman said of CSDR's turnaround. "What he has done in the last three years with this team and this school is phenomenal."

Joey Weir, a Cub senior tight end and one of six fourth-year players, said, "I have really improved and seen the system change a lot. Their teaching the techniques, weightlifting and stuff like that, has made a difference."

Perhaps the most telling sign of success for a team that has set school records by twice limiting opponents to negative yardage and by scoring 70 points in a game has been the presence of rival coaches in the stands.

"Two or three years ago," Gonzales said, "no one would come and scout us because they knew they would beat us."

Cub players are already eagerly anticipating a ceremony in which their coach will replace a locker-room picture of the 1965 team, considered the best in school history, with one of this year's team.

"I hope that picture will be there for the next 50 years," Sidansky said. His wide-eyed expression said the rest, in any language.

Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times