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November 10, 2004

Proud of the boys

From: Press-Enterprise - Riverside,CA,USA - Nov 10, 2004


RIVERSIDE - The game was over, and not only had the evening's battle been won, but with it the long-awaited league championship. Time to celebrate - and in this case, everybody was invited.

Little kids joined the handshake line. When the players knelt on the turf moments later for a few inspirational words from their coach, fans and parents ringed around them three and four deep.

At the California School for the Deaf, Riverside, the most unlikely success story of the high school football season has indeed been a family affair.

"When the football team wins, it gets the morale up throughout the community - gets them out here, gets the parents involved," said Coach Len Gonzales, speaking in sign language through an interpreter.

"We have a really large deaf community in Riverside, and (people) don't realize that. The community sticks together."

The red brick campus located on Horace Street has been the focal point of that deaf community for more than 50 years, as one of two state K-12 schools for the deaf. But its football teams have been more curiosity than powerhouse. The hearing world often finds it hard to grasp that players who can't hear a whistle, or a snap count, or a coach's shouted instructions from the sideline can function efficiently on the field.

Believe it. Playing in the San Joaquin League in Division XIII, the smallest of the CIF Southern Section's divisions, CSDR has won the first league title in school history, takes an 8-1 record into Friday's 2 p.m. home game and regular-season finale against Twin Pines and has at least a couple of players who, all else being equal, likely could hang with their counterparts at bigger schools.

All else, of course, isn't equal, which makes this so compelling.

"I grew up at a deaf school, and I've seen a lot of deaf athletes," line coach John Castrese said through an interpreter. "There's never a difference between the hearing and the deaf. We're the same, but the deaf don't realize that. We have the capability of doing anything the hearing can do."

Much of the battle has involved convincing the players they can. Gonzales, who played football at CSDR and later at Gallaudet University in Washington D. C., arrived in 2001 to a program that had won three games in three seasons. His first CSDR team went 0-10, but the school has reached the CIF playoffs the past two seasons while seemingly building toward this moment.

Gonzales and his staff - which includes former players in Division I-A (Castrese, at North Texas) and I-AA (offensive coordinator Keith Adams, Cal Poly) - got the players into the weight room, into summer passing leagues and into off-season football camps. Not only did that help bond CSDR's players together and develop their skills, but it showed them there were just as many similarities as differences with the hearing players around them.

This was critical. Lindy Hoffee, a hearing member of the school's staff, points out that self-esteem issues can be deaf students' biggest hurdle.

"When I arrived here, almost every player said, 'Oh, no, we're going to lose,' or, 'Why do we have to practice so hard? Why do we have to be on time? Why do we have to lift weights,'" Gonzales said.

" ... A lot of our kids have no communication in their own homes. They're very sheltered. Then they come here and they have the opportunity to open up and learn a lot. They realize they can do a lot of the things the same as (hearing) people can, except they can't hear."

Does success make a difference? You judge.

"I've been more helpful in school," sophomore lineman Andrew Haupert said through an interpreter. "It's helped me with my grades, helped me be more cooperative. I have a better attitude."

Added cornerback Gary Sidnasky, through an interpreter: "Last year, I was in trouble a lot. This year, a lot less."

On the field, the Cubs have outscored their opponents by 216 points, have averaged 328 rushing yards a game (with two 900-yard rushers in junior Alberto Martinez and freshman Selwyn Abrahamson) and have erased a host of school records. Their forays into the CIF playoffs the past two seasons ended in lopsided first-round losses, but this season's dominance has bred a confidence that this time, they'll stay a while.

That would delight the parents, families, alumni and friends who have reconnected with the program.

And it probably would have brought a big grin to the face of the late Pete Lanzi, who built CSDR's football program in his 26 years as head coach. Gonzales recalled that when he first came to the school as a child, Lanzi was his first-grade PE teacher. Later, the young Gonzales would pepper the old coach with questions about teams and players of the past.

"I wish Pete were still alive," Gonzales said. "I think he'd be upset because we broke his records, but I'm sure he'd be happy about how we're playing.

"He'd be proud of the boys."

Reach Jim Alexander at (951) 368-9543 or