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The Age of Excellence: A Cowboy coronation

2006’s big story : Canyon Football

Posted: December 25, 2009 11:01 p.m.
Updated: December 26, 2009 4:30 a.m.

Canyon football head coach Harry Welch hoists his team's 2006 state-championship trophy over his head.

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People find peace in Telluiride, the famed ski resort in Western Colorado.

With the snow falling, fires stoking in lodges and people whizzing down mountains on skis, life is pretty carefree.

After winning his third straight CIF title at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, Harry Welch took a winter break and vacationed there last week.

Rumors are swirling that he’s on his way out at St. Margaret’s.

The rumors say Santa Margarita, Loyola and Crespi are making pitches for one of the state’s most successful coaches ever.

He’ll listen.

One of the reasons is that he misses something.

The big stage.

“I do miss it sometimes,” he admits. “That’s why I’m very tempted to accept some offers on the table right now.”

Welch won’t admit, because he has been in so many big games, but one may define his career.

It also defines Canyon football.

In a sea filled with turmoil, Canyon football was an unsinkable ship in 2006.

From Welch’s statement in March of that year that he would leave the program if he didn’t get more coaching help to the team’s surprising state championship win over the nation’s No. 1 team Concord De La Salle, the Cowboys’ 2006 was one of the most memorable seasons of any sport in Santa Clarita Valley history.

But it was far from easy.

“It was so very stressful because I felt a commitment and love for the players and families. All the things happening outside to the players and families, after 37 years of dedicating my life to the Canyon Country community, it was most painful,” says Welch, who was Canyon’s head coach from 1982 to 1994 and 2001 to 2006.

The story ends April 27, 2007 with Welch’s resignation as head coach after an internal battle with the school’s administration.

But it began years before with Canyon football’s renaissance.

Between 1994 and 2001, Canyon football went 35-48-1.

It was a far cry from Canyon’s dominant run with Welch in the 1980s that included CIF titles in 1983, 1984 and 1985 and the nation’s longest winning streak at the time.

From 2002 to 2005, Canyon went 44-7, including a CIF-Southern Section Division II championship against Hart in 2005.

The 2006 season was set in motion when Welch complained to the boosters.

Then, in the summer, national rankings came out putting the Cowboys in the top 20 of many polls.

In 2005, the CIF approved plans to start a CIF state championship game the following season.

Did it enter the minds of the Canyon players?

“Yeah, definitely,” says then-Canyon and current BYU running back J.J. DiLuigi. “We knew we’d be playing there. That’s what we wanted all year. We wanted to be in that game.”

DiLuigi had reason to be confident.

In 2005, he rushed for a school record 1,870 yards and scored a valley record 43 touchdowns.

But DiLuigi was just one of many reasons for the Cowboys’ preseason hype.

Ben Longshore, the younger brother of then-Cal and former Cowboys quarterback Nate Longshore, showed a lot of promise.

The Canyon offensive line was considered one of the best in the state and the defense, though undersized, was defined by its gang-tackle mentality.

Then waves began to crash.

Back-to-back losses in the beginning of the season, a cancelled game against Lancaster that Welch blamed the administrations at both schools for fouling up, the controversial 90-0 win over Golden Valley and the transfer from Bakersfield Stockdale of Kenny Shanahan.

Shanahan, a big-play running back/linebacker, moved to Canyon Country and was eligible to play for the Cowboys, yet it didn’t stop rumor mongers from accusing Canyon of recruiting.

On the 90-0 game, 2006 starting defensive back and wide receiver Mike Loucks says today: “What else do you want us to do? Punt on first down? That’s more embarrassing for the team.”

It was, in some people’s eyes, a take-no-prisoners approach.

Welch, who had and still has a reputation for being hard-edged, acknowledges that his coaches and players were pushed by him that year.

“I do try and push to a limit. I always found that when a young man or a woman comes close to a potential, it’s almost like the expanding universe, the potential increases,” he says. “When I push to this edge, the edge expands. Then I push to the next edge, and it expands.

On his reputation for pushing people, Welch says: “I’m fully aware of that, and I always take that risk that maybe they’ll quit on themselves or perhaps the knowledge transfer won’t take place. But way over 90 percent, maybe 99 percent of the time, it happens,”

Welch says he recently received an e-mail from Stephen Wirthlin, who was a junior wide receiver/defensive back on that 2006 team.

Wirthlin e-mailed from Romania, where he’s on his Mormon mission.

“He mentioned that when he was a junior playing for me he hated me,” Welch says.

As the e-mail went on, Wirthlin recalled a story of how Welch angrily approached the team and lit into them for the way they were stretching.

The e-mail had what Welch yelled at his players in capital letters — “IF YOU ARE GOING TO BE HERE, BE HERE.”

The e-mail ended with Wirthlin saying it took him a while, but he finally understood his coach and appreciated his approach.

Loucks says all the things going on around the program and Welch’s style was not a detriment to the team.

In fact, he says Welch almost manipulated better play out of his players.

“He made people play better than they thought they could,” Loucks says.

Canyon breezed through the first three rounds of the playoffs, outscoring the trio of teams 181-24.

In the CIF-SS Northern Division title game on Dec. 9, 2006, Canyon ran into a Moorpark team it opened the season up beating 33-14.

But the championship game was much different.

Four Cowboys went down with injuries, including Loucks to a concussion, and Canyon saw a 21-7 lead turn into a 22-21 deficit to the Musketeers and the nation’s top running back recruit at the time, Darrell Scott, with 1:15 left in the game.

But on first down from the Canyon 20, Longshore completed a short swing pass to DiLuigi, who stiff-armed a defender and took it 36 yards down field.

Longshore then connected with Anthony Arriaga for 37 yards.

It set up the game winning 18-yard field goal by Chris Chapman with 7.6 seconds left.

Canyon won 24-22, then awaited the next day’s announcement as to who would play in the CIF’s inaugural state title game.

“We didn’t feel like we’d get in,” DiLuigi says. “Something blessed us that made it happen.”

Canyon was selected in a televised announcement.

Welch theorizes that the CIF wanted to develop a South-North rivalry and by putting Canyon in the game, it would assure a De La Salle a victory. The next year, it would present the storyline that the North was superior to the South.

On Dec. 11, Welch drove down to the Home Depot Center for a luncheon.

De La Salle head coach Bob Ladouceur, considered one of the greatest high school football coaches ever, was also at the luncheon.

He led the Spartans to six national titles and 12 state championships to that point, winning 151 straight games from 1992 to 2003.

Welch recalls meeting Ladouceur at a coaching clinic in 1985 in Lake Tahoe, Nev.
He reacquainted himself with the coach.

“Ladouceur wouldn’t give me the time of day,” Welch says. “I reintroduced myself, tried to refer back to the earlier meeting. He kind of nodded. I remember saying that it’s a real honor to play (De La Salle). That I was trying, in my mind saying, ‘Here is probably the greatest high school coach in the history of high school football’ and I tried to play with his head.”

Welch told Ladouceur how his Canyon players were banged up and he tried to pump up the opposing coach’s ego.

“I was giving him things to think about,” Welch says. “Hopefully I could distract him or his coaches from perhaps focusing on us as much as they’d like.”

By halftime of the CIF-State Championship Division I Bowl Game on Dec. 16, 2006, it was clear that Canyon wasn’t intimidated.

The Cowboys were up 20-7 at halftime.

Before the game, Welch says he read his players and coaches the riot act for being caught up in the hype.

“I did not read J.J. DiLuigi the riot act,” Welch says. “He was so ready for that game. He was probably more ready for a game than anyone I ever coached. If anyone lived fully for a high school game, J.J. did in that game.”

DiLuigi carried the ball 21 times for 138 yards.

Longshore was solid in the first half, but struggled in the second, tossing three interceptions.

But the Canyon defense would not wilt.

“They were everything in the second half,” Longshore said that night of his defense.

The Cowboys shocked the state, maybe the nation, with a 27-13 victory.

Ladouceur walked briskly off the field that night.

He was brief.

“We didn’t convert opportunities,” he said. “We didn’t make first downs. It was very winnable.”

The following year, De La Salle beat Centennial Corona 37-31 in the Division I state championship game.

It lost the rematch last season and won the Open Division state title last Saturday with a 28-14 over Crenshaw.

Welch took over at St. Margaret’s in 2007 and has won three straight CIF titles.

St. Margaret’s won the inaugural Small Schools Division state title in 2008.

Welch says he won’t compare the state titles.

He can’t.

Quite simply, they’re not the same.
 

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