Orange County: La Habra-OLu has plenty of buzz value

For the last two years La Habra has been playing up in the nonleague portion of its schedule, taking on Los Alamitos and San Clemente, so that the medium division team might have its weaknesses exposed by higher division programs. That strategy allowed the Highlanders, who have won three consecutive section titles, to make corrections and get better. Yet only once has La Habra actually beaten a Division I opponent. Last year it beat San Clemente, 29-28, after losing to Los Alamitos, 28-13, during a 13-1 season. It dropped both games in 2008, 28-21.

That's why its nonleague games this season are so intriguing. La Habra, ranked 15th in the ESPNLA top 25, seems to be inviting disaster by playing three Trinity League opponents -- No. 17 Orange Lutheran, No. 1 Servite and St. John Bosco.

Servite is the defending Pac-5 champion, Orange Lutheran has been a solid program since the 1990s, and Bosco is expected to raise its game under first-year coach Jason Negro, who coached Trabuco Hills to the the Southeast title game before losing to La Habra in 2009.

This should be La Habra's best team ever, and it's exciting to see a program develop and then challenge itself to play at the highest caliber. It isn't resting on its laurels, but is trying to prove itself as Coach Frank Mazzotta tries to get the most out of his athletes.

The Highlanders showed off their skill players, including quarterback Cody Clements (Washington State) and running back Ahmad Avery, and won the Battle of the Beach passing league tournament at Edison this summer – and did it without its best wide receiver, junior Brett Bartolone. That tournament included Mater Dei, Los Alamitos, Chaparral, Corona Centennial and Oaks Christian. Those are the heavy hitters.

Yet Mazzotta will tell you that adding line play creates an entirely different animal. So be it, but the Highlanders have four starters returning, including third-year starters Kyle Peko at right tackle and Kevin Casey at left tackle.

“Our expectations are always the same, compete and do well, win the league championship and go to the playoffs and make a statement,” Mazzotta said.

A physical defense led by defensive backs Mike Sparling (SMU) and Will Peppard, and linebacker Aaron Porter, La Habra may well be positioned to post the highest-profile victory of its history despite having all those championships.

Yet this matchup Friday at Glover Stadium is also a big opportunity for Lutheran, which in many ways has been under the radar leading into this season. In three years prior to its 6-5 campaign in which it suffered many injuries and two losses on the last play of the game, the program had won the Pac-5 and State Division II Bowl and been to back-to-back semifinals. With QB Mike Markovsky having gotten a year under his belt last season after being thrust into the starting role by injury, the Lancers figure to be closer to 2008 than 2009.

For all the buzz that the schedule has generated, the pressure here really is on La Habra, which is taking the first step toward showing it is an elite caliber team. In almost all rankings -- but not yet here at ESPNLA -- La Habra is the higher ranked team. With all the attention given the Highlanders, somewhat ironically, it's Lutheran that could create the real buzz with a victory.