Head Coach: Mark McElroy (5th season, 23-19 career record)
2002 Recap: The Gauchos finished last year with a record of 9-2, defeating Cerritos College, 35-28 in OT, in the Strawberry Bowl. It was the Falcons' first loss in their own bowl game. Fr. LB Ryan Powdrell was named MVP of the game, recording 14 tackles, including 3 for a loss and returns for his sophomore season in 2003. Their only setbacks in 2002 were at the hands of Foothill power Grossmont College, 38-14 in week two and their 19-16 loss to conference foe Palomar College. The Gauchos were a formidable unit, finishing the year #1 in scoring defense and scoring offense in the Mission Conference.
2003 Outlook: If the head coaches around the conference know what it takes to be crowned Mission champs, then Saddleback could be in the driver's seat. The Gauchos have three offensive starters returning, led by QB Brock Farrel (6-0, 195, San Marcos HS) the conference's passing and all-purpose yardage leader in 2002. Farrel's experience and leadership will be important for the confidence of new players at the skill positions. "Like other teams in the conference, were young at receiver and running back, but have many able bodies," McElroy noted.
The head man for Saddleback expects bounce back WR Julien Petit (6-3, 190) to have a standout season. The Mater Dei of Santa Ana graduate returns to Orange County from Colorado St. and has 4.4-4.5 speed, according to McElroy. If the Saddleback offense ever sputters and is forced to punt, they have the services of returning all-conference punter Steve Berneking (6-3, 180, Aliso Niguel HS).
"We have seven defensive starters back and this will be the strength of our team," McElroy proclaimed. The defensive unit is spearheaded by Powdrell, a big-time recruit who is being hotly pursued by many D-1 schools. The 6-1, 245-pound sophomore out of Mission Viejo HS was named the #1 linebacker prospect in the country by Street & Smith's Magazine, according to McElroy. Another standout returning at LB is Jimmy Ellingson (5-11, 220, Temescal Canyon HS). SS Jeff Dixon (6-1, 215, Capistrano Valley HS) is a veteran in the secondary who can make big plays. Dixon returned an interception 69 yards for a TD in the Strawberry Bowl and the Gauchos hope their defense can lead them to a bowl game with larger stakes on the line in 2003. "We will have to be a very good unit," McElroy conceded.
First Game: With high expectations this season, Coach McElroy has his team "focused on one game at a time". That one focus is L.A. Harbor at home in week one. In week two, the Gauchos travel to Chaffey in an important cross-over battle. The cross-over games are important in determining seeds #1-#3 in the playoff, as each conference champ is guaranteed one of the top three seeds based on strength of conference.
MISSION CONFERENCE NOTEBOOK
The Mission Conference, arguably the nation's strongest from top to bottom, held its annual media day on the campus of Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California on Thursday, August 21. Palomar College and Pasadena City College were picked as pre-season favorites in their respective divisions of the conference. Palomar received seven first-place points and had 49 points, 10 ahead of 2nd place Long Beach City College in the American division. PCC garnered six first-place votes and edged out Saddleback College by a single point in the pre-season voting, 53-52, in the National division.
Cerritos head coach Frank Mazzota fielded questions from the media and other head coaches regarding realignment and how the new playoff system involving the bowl games would work. Eight teams make the playoffs, as the Mission and Western State Conferences are guaranteed two teams and the Foothill Conference is guaranteed one. The remaining three teams will be at-large bids. In this format, the bowl involving #4 and #5 seeds are automatically Western State and Mission teams, as the conference champions will be seeded #1-#3 and will host a bowl at the site of their choice.