West of Bakersfield linebacker hopes last year's 9-2 record wasn't a fluke and that 2003 won't return the Vikings to the forgotten land of mediocrity.

Perhaps the best turnaround team in CIF Central Section prep football last year was West of Bakersfield. The Vikings were only 3-7 in 2001, but double-winged their way to a 9-2 mark in 2002 and one player who experienced both seasons was all-state linebacker Josh Stephens.

"We all knew coming into last year that could be good and we worked real hard," he said. "It felt great to be on a winning team. We're looking for another season like it and looking to take it as far as we can."

Stephens, named to the 2002 All-State Underclass team, made 132 tackles with one interception, four sacks and eight tackles for loss. The 6-1, 215-pounder also played fullback in the double-wing offense and this year should be one of the team's top ball carriers.

Only five other starters are back for West, although another honors candidate figures to be 6-1, 260-pound lineman John Guevara.

"Our young guys are going to have to mature fast," Stephens said. "But we know we've got some good juniors and if they deliver, we're going to be good again, if not better."

Stephens said the highlight to the 2002 season was a 48-20 victory over Stockdale, a program that usually gives the Vikings fits. "Up to then, a lot of people around here were doubting our schedule," he said. "That one sort of silenced the critics."

The senior added that one of his biggest challenges was when West played East Bakersfield and its standout running back, LeAndre Matthews, who is perhaps the top overall player and college prospect in the section this year.

"He went for about 300 yards against us," Stephens said. "He is definitely the real deal. The entire package of skills and hard work."

Stephens hopes more colleges view him as more of an entire package as well. Heading into fall practices, he's received full scholarship offers from Oregon State and Sacramento State. When more schools see him on film, the offers could go up. Some colleges appear to have backed off when they saw his height listed at 5-11 at the USC Nike Camp. One coach recently came up to him at practice, though, and according to Stephens, immediately commented, ‘You're definitely 6-1.'

"I don't have a top five or anything like that," he said. "I'm looking a lot closer at Oregon State once they offered. I'm also showing interest in Stanford."

Stephens is the second of two brothers in his family. Older brother David, 21, played football for four years at West, but did not continue afterward. His father, Larry, is a steel salesman, and his mother, Kriss, sells real estate.

"My dad recently underwent cancer surgery, but is now doing better," Josh said. "That has been a real concern for our family recently, a real jolt of reality."

And that's spoken by someone who knows a thing or two about jolts of reality. He's usually the one delivering them on a football field.

NOTE: A follow-up phone call revealed that Josh was visiting his father in the hospital. It might be a good idea to keep the family in your thoughts and/or prayers.

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