The new Marmonte League opens with four games Thursday night. Oaks Christian and St. Bonaventure, the newest members of the Marmonte League, take the field Friday night at Ventura High School.
The 10-team super league is stirring debate among coaches and players. Some say the league should be split up into two five-team leagues. One coach has said mixing private schools and public schools in the same league is a bad idea. One player has said adding Oaks Christian and St. Bonaventure only makes the teams already in the Marmonte League look that much stronger.
The Marmonte League was strong enough without adding Oaks Christian and St. Bonaventure, two of the more successful football programs in the state.
Westlake won the CIF Southern Section Northern Division championship last year, where it beat league rival Moorpark.
Jim Benkert, the Westlake coach, says he invites the challenge of the new league.
"One of the things that we've done here is we really haven't been whining about things," Benkert said. "Other schools can spend their time complaining and such. We've always considered ourselves a good football team. We've never shied away from playing anybody. I think from that standpoint when it became a reality, our kids were looking forward to the challenge, whereas some other people are running away from the challenge."
Westlake quarterback Nick Isham said adding two teams of the caliber of Oaks Christian and St. Bonaventure will make his team and the other teams in the Marmonte League better.
"Both of those teams obviously have great backgrounds, highly respected programs," Isham said. "They're highly respected in our eyes. We're not going to take them lightly. They've got great coaching staffs, great players. We're just going to go out there and compete how we would any other week. We're going to take it just like another game, just hope that we come out on top."
Oaks Christian coach Bill Redell said his team needed to find stronger competition. Beating up on teams from the Tri-Valley League wasn't going to make his team better. But joining the Marmonte League might not be the best idea either.
"There's no question we couldn't stay where we were at," Redell said. "You can't beat teams 70-7 and continue to stay in that league. We realized we had to move. The Marmonte League is an outstanding league, with outstanding coaches. I'm not overly excited about being in the Marmonte League. I don't like a 10-team league. I wish they would have divided maybe into two five-team leagues, which they will probably end up doing, I would think."
Oaks Christian brings a star-studded squad to the Marmonte League. Quarterback Trevor Gretzky is the son of NHL Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky. Jordan Payton and Blair Holliday are NCAA Division I caliber receivers. St. Bonaventure has some talented players on its team as well.
"It's good competition and we're really excited about it," Agoura receiver Kevin Beams said. "We're going to get more psyched for those games because they're new. They're different than the same teams every year. Now we got a little change and it's exciting because they're big-name teams. When we play well against them, it looks better on us."
But the big-name schools are also private schools. That adds an unsettling wrinkle to the Marmonte League equation for some coaches.
"Public and private: I don't think they're the same animal," Agoura coach Charlie Wegher said. "They're bringing kids from all over the place. All the other schools in our league that are public got to live with a five-, six-mile radius around their school. I don't believe public and private are the same. It's a gap that's getting wider and wider every year. Practice facilities and coaches' salaries and money, resources, there just two different things. I don't believe it's a good situation."
Another possible drawback to having a 10-team league is there is not much room for a preseason or nonleague schedule. All the teams in the Marmonte League have been able to play only one nonleague game. The remaining nine games are league games.
"Even three nonleague games is really the minimum and we're playing one," Benkert said. "To get three games under their belts and to get some experience, we have some films and we can make some corrections, would maybe be the minimum. But now for one nonleague game and six days later we play a Thousand Oaks team that's loaded. It's going to be a short week and a big challenge for us."
For Westlake, it's especially challenging. After winning the league and Northern Division championships, every other team in the Marmonte League will be gunning for the Warriors and Benkert knows it.
"Obviously we had a lot of success last year and everybody's giving us a lot of props this year, we're not denying that we're a pretty good football team," Benkert said. "But that puts the target on our back and we're everybody's Super Bowl. Week to week we're going to have to play like that. Not that we're shying away from that at all. But it makes this league thing a lot more challenging."
It could be one of the most exciting, and exhausting, prep football schedules in the country.
"For us to be in a position where we are, where we just ready to play anybody who is on our schedule," Benkert said, "I think that's an important aspect of preparing for a tough season like we're facing."