"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Harry Welch, head football coach at Canyon High School. Questions are paraphrased.
SCVTV: What does it feel like to be a champion again?
Welch: It feels wonderful. I share it with every member of the Cowboy football team and every student at Canyon High School, the administration and staff, and Canyon Country, and all of Santa Clarita. It is a wonderful feeling.
SCVTV: Let's walk through the final minute of the championship game against Hart. With 23 seconds to go, fourth down and 10, Hart has the ball at the Canyon 11-yard line. Hart is down by a touchdown and a two-point conversion. This game is close to being tied. You're on the Canyon sideline, you're crouched down, you're looking at the ground. What was going through your head at that moment?
Welch: I was probably thinking what we were going to have for a meal after the game, something like that.
SCVTV: So you thought it was decided at that point?
Welch: No. I thought it was a great football game, too. I thought it was one of the more entertaining games that I had been involved in, and for so many decades. I have so much respect for the Hart Indian football team and their coaching staff. I was honored to be there representing the Santa Clarita Valley, with the Hart Indians. The Canyon Cowboys-Hart Indians — how perfect to be there at the Home Depot Center.
We get down to the last few seconds of the ball game. We had made some good plays on defense, the Indians had moved the ball effectively, gone from the far 1-yard line down to our 11-yard line. Everything was on the line right then. I was hoping that we would execute maybe just a little bit better than they did. As it turned out, well, you could have flipped a coin. It could have gone either way. And it was marvelous. Great theater.
SCVTV: So Hart takes the snap, the quarterback, Tyler Lyon, hits his receiver, Troy Yudin, at the 1-yard line. It comes down to a measurement, to see if Hart still has a chance or if Canyon has won its first CIF championship in 20 years. Does it get any better than that?
Welch: I don't think it gets any better than that. It could have been on natural — everything. The natural surface was there; if we had some old leather helmets and some things like that, it would have been a real throwback. Because we had played quite a bit of smash-mouth football during the game, and this really came down to pass-catch-tackle. It didn't get any better than that.
By the way, I thought Troy Yudin had a marvelous game. What a great game he had, and what a wonderful receiver he is. And I thought J.J. DiLuigi, who everyone acknowledges as being a wonderful running back, played a very good game on defense, and he made the key play right then. He tackled Troy Yudin just shy, literally inches shy, of a successful first down, which would have offered them an opportunity to score and then perhaps tie the ball game.
SCVTV: That tackle ultimately brought you back 20 years, when you won your last CIF championship. Twenty years is a long time, isn't it?
Welch: It is a long time. I mean, none of my players — and it seems like sometimes few of my coaches — are that old, so it was a great time to reminisce a bit, to go back to the mid '80s. I had some wonderful teams in the '80s. I had some football teams that could play with anyone, gifted kids who worked hard and who were very proud of playing Cowboy football.
This team, and the last few years, have reminded me of what Cowboy football was all about: very committed, very hard-working young men who play with a great deal of spirit, discipline, poise under pressure. This was really good football, very entertaining. And obviously I was very pleased with the outcome.
I would have been so proud of the Cowboys regardless of how the game came out, and as I said in front of 7,000 people after the game, I was very proud of the effort and the performance of the Hart Indians. It was a great football game. I thought there were no losers that night, that our defense played very, very well. We played the Indians twice this year, and neither time did we give up more than two touchdowns. The terrific drive that Hart had this time to go the length of the field — nevertheless, the Cowboy defense did stop them. They didn't convert. That was wonderful.
I was very, very proud of our young men. I enjoyed the evening very much. Got to share it with my daughters who were there; my grandchildren were there. In fact, one of my grandchildren, Nicholas, was one of my ball boys. This was really nice, after 20 years to come full circle and to have the whole family — it was really, really lovely.
SCVTV: What did the 2005 Canyon Football team have that the last 19 teams didn't have?
Welch: Well, they played well at the right time. They made plays at the right time. They played their best football at the end of the year.
In fact, ever since the fourth game of the year, we seemed to get better and better. And if there were some games where we played not quite as well as others, we were always playing well. Our worst game was still pretty good football. We beat a terrific Valencia team two times, we beat a Hart Indian team that is one of the better Hart Indian teams — not so much in all of their big-name talent, but they also had a team that moved well, hit very hard, had good discipline, a lot of spirit and a terrific attitude. So this was a very, very rewarding championship.
The earlier championships were terrific. I think of those first three championships a little bit like a man having three children and then, after a long time, surprise! Here's a fourth, somewhat unexpected. And it was wonderful.
I don't know if there are many high school coaches who have won multiple championships two decades preceding a fourth one. I don't know if anyone has a 20-year hiatus between championships.
This was a dream. But the players this year, they played so well. They executed on offense. They executed on defense. We had people like Austin Sevita, who came on to be an absolutely terrific quarterback. I wasn't even sure he was going to be the starting quarterback at the beginning of the season. J.J. DiLuigi had a very good junior-varsity season, but this year he was miles beyond that. He was a wonderful surprise.
We started three juniors and a sophomore on our offensive line most of the year, and we didn't know how they were going develop. The championship game, we started several sophomores — sophomore offensive linemen, two sophomore wide receivers — I had no idea how this was all going to pan out, earlier.
I didn't know a skinny kid like Richie Wirthlin was going to have such an incredible season. What I knew is, he had character, he had quickness, he had talent, but he'd had a tendency to have these freak injuries in his earlier years, and I had no idea how he was going to develop. And then earlier in the season he broke his hand rather severely, and it looked like we were going to lose this great player, and he came back to lead us in the playoffs. What a great run he had. And then with linebackers like Tyler Hawkins and Matt Brown and Garrett Leary on the defensive line, we were really blessed.
SCVTV: For some of these kids, this might be the last time they put on football pads. Most aren't going on to play college ball. Did you and your staff get the most out of these kids that you could possibly could?
Welch: Well, the players got the most of out of themselves. This year, these young men — who come from terrific families, and some of these Canyon Country families are so wonderful — it's pretty easy when you have good kids who come from good families. This year I had many, many young men of character who got the most out of themselves.
I'd like to think that I was responsible (but) they were responsible for their success and their achievement. Although I was honored to have a terrific coaching staff. My assistant head coach, Scott Blade — if there is a better assistant coach anywhere in California, I don't know of him. He is just awesome. And then I've had people with me for many years like Coach Dave Ends, who does such a fine job. I have four or five other young men who have come on and stepped up and helped me; I am in their debt.
SCVTV: Let's reverse things. At one point you thought Mission Viejo, ranked No. 2 in the nation, was going to the championship. What if Canyon, instead of Hart, had faced Mission Viejo in the semifinals, and Hart, instead of Canyon, had played Valencia? Do the same two teams reach the championship game?
Welch: They may well. We were playing much better than I wanted to let on, and much better than — a lot of the teams perhaps realize that they didn't see all of the Division 1 talent lined up. And so they thought, "Oh, we can beat this Canyon team," but when they got out on the field, they saw kids who moved a little quicker, who played a little better football than they were prepared for.
So yes, if Hart plays Valencia, perhaps Hart wins again. They were playing so well toward the end of the year, I think they probably would have. (If) we play Mission Viejo, I am certain they would not have brought their A-game; like other teams this year (they) underestimated the Cowboys. And we would have had a chance. But the Indians' effort against Mission Viejo was sensational. I was at that game, and I thought the coaching preparation and the players were just magnificent.
SCVTV: We had three teams from Santa Clarita in the CIF Southern Section Division II semifinals and two in the finals. What does this say about how strong a town Santa Clarita is in Southern California football?
Welch: Well, I would like to be the P.T. Barnum salesman for football, and sell Santa Clarita football to most anyone — but I don't need to be. This is a great year for Santa Clarita football. I believe that the best football played in California, and maybe in a relatively small area, the best football played in America by three or four high schools, is right here in Santa Clarita.
It's hard to imagine how good these schools are, because — they see one another, play one another, and we just say, "Oh, that's just the way football is played." But no. We play at another level.
To have three of the four semifinal teams right here from our valley; to have both of the finalists from Santa Clarita, is really indicative of how good of football we play here. And Division II is the best division in California. There are 13 Southern Section divisions; Division II is the best there. And the Southern Section routinely is recognized as the strongest section in all of California.
I would say that the best football played in California, and ergo America, is right here in Santa Clarita.
SCVTV: What does that say about the 2005 Canyon Cowboys?
Welch: It says they're a pretty good football team. I don't know of anyone that I've seen on paper, in person, or in video clips, who definitely would beat them. Some might, but I don't know that they would.
SCVTV: And yet a lot of the experts didn't really give you guys the respect or the credit you deserved during the season, and in the end you are the champions. What does that say about the so-called experts?
Welch: I don't know that you overlooked the Cowboys — not The Mighty Signal — but there were so-called experts all over Southern California who said that perhaps the Cowboys didn't play the schedule that other people had, and perhaps they're not that strong.
But in hindsight, we started off this season defeating a Leuzinger High School 55-0, and they went on to have a pretty good season and played in the CIF playoffs. We defeated a Crespi team that went on to win their division of the CIF championships. Burroughs-Ridgecrest — this school from the high desert that also a lot of people don't give proper respect to, because they're removed and perhaps they don't have the tradition of big-time — they won the CIF championship. So the teams that we played and defeated actually were pretty good football teams.
Now, Canyon High School is not a school that is going to be overlooked. People are going to talk about the terrific teams that have been and are at Valencia, the terrific teams that have been and are at Hart High School. Now, right in there, they're going to say it's a three-headed monster — at least three-headed in Santa Clarita. There are at least three schools, and I think Saugus High School is playing better and better football. I think Coach Bornn does a wonderful job over there. And now with the addition of West Ranch and Golden Valley, we're going to have six schools out here that I believe are going to play about as good of football as is played anywhere.
SCVTV: You brought back the classic Hart-Canyon rivalry; now, with six SCV teams in the Foothill League, the cross-town rivalry is going to be blown all out of proportion, isn't it?
Welch: Well, it is. We're going to be a little bit like central Texas. We're going to have a Permean High School and an Odessa and some of these others. Right here in Santa Clarita people are going to be talking about us the way they talk about some of these great schools, high schools, in Texas and Ohio and Florida. Right here.
We're very, very honored to defeat a very terrific Hart High School for three consecutive times; to defeat a marvelous Valencia program four out of the last five times. We're really, really pleased, and now to have four championships out of five final game efforts, we're feeling very good.
SCVTV: You've had two tenures at Canyon, first from 1982 to 1993.
SCVTV: Why did you leave the football program?
Welch: If you notice, I'm — among other things — I strained my vocal cords. It's my own fault, but in my gentle persuasion that I use — it's hard for me to believe that this gentle love that I share, stresses any vocal chords. But I've actually had two surgeries on my vocal chords. Then, with 12 consecutive years of going 12 months, my health was taking a big hit. It truly was.
And then there were a few odd tragedies. I had a young boy, on his way home from practice, die in a car accident. And that affected me. And it still does. Because I love these young men, and to lose one on his way home from football practice — somehow I did and still feel a little guilt about it.
One of the greatest men I've ever known, his name is Chuck Wade. On his way home from a game, on his way to my house, after one of our games, he was involved in a car accident, and he was permanently paralyzed.
So between my own health and the loss of a player and this paralysis of a man I cared for so very much, I needed to step back and take some time. I needed that very much.
SCVTV: What brought you back?
Welch: Well, time. Time heals some things, and I thought that perhaps I could moderate my own voice projection. For a long time I was out there with a megaphone, and what I found I was doing, though, was I was screaming every bit as loudly; now it was just projected even more through a megaphone.
But I felt I still had something to give to the young men. I still had something to give to the community. I had something to give to Canyon High School. And I didn't want to end my career as a teacher without giving more. I had more to give back, and that's why I'm here.
SCVTV: It took just five years to get back on top and win a CIF championship. Your first time around, in your second season you took a program that had never won a playoff game and won a CIF championship, and then you won three CIF championships in a row. How did you do that?
Welch: We worked very, very hard. I was a bit of a hard-nose, instead of this gentle person you see before you now. We pushed very, very hard and I had some really good players.
Now, what I believe is, the level of football continues to get better and better, and when I came back in 2001, the level of football was so great, the bar had been placed so high, that whoever was going to win was going to be an incredible football team. And it took a little while. The teams around here were so very, very good, and it took a little while for us to, at first, catch them, and then to have any chance of competing and passing them took quite an effort by these young men.
SCVTV: This year you had a running back, J.J. DiLuigi, who scored 43 touchdowns. It's the most ever scored in one season in the Santa Clarita Valley — a valley you say might be the best in the country. How did he do it?
SCVTV: I thought it was even 44. It might be 54 by the time I think about it a little bit.
J.J., first of all, he comes from a marvelous family, these beautiful people who are very motivated, very driven to succeed in positive ways. J.J. is a focused young man. And he has terrific vision on the field. He can move left and right very, very well. He continues to get faster and faster.
I didn't think he had very good speed a year ago, and his speed has really improved. He has good speed now. He's a tough young man. But he understands football so very, very well.
And then, he's playing behind a very, very talented offensive line. Nick Peterson up front, this center we have is very, very special. We've got these bookend tackles, Nick Madia and Marc Valdez, two junior tackles that I'm very, very pleased with. Andrew Suarez at one guard, and a young sophomore, A.J. Wallerstein, at the other — there are some very good men up front. So when you take a talented young man who understands football, who is quick and can move left and right and accelerate, has good hands, put him behind a good offensive line, it's a dream.
SCVTV: DiLuigi is a junior, and the offensive linemen are underclassmen.
Welch: One sophomore and three juniors.
SCVTV: So you have those five guys coming back next year. Can Cowboy Football return to the top?
Welch: We're going to be a good football team next year. We're really going to miss people on offense like Richie Wirthlin and Austin Civita; that's going to be difficult for us. But we have some good kids coming back.
We think that someone like a Ben Longshore is going to step in and do very, very well at quarterback. Chris Kingsbury, Mike Loucks, Mark Urbina, Stephen Wirthlin at wide receiver, and a couple others — Kenny Suber has really made improvements at wide receiver, and Mike Cooper. We think that we have a chance of being pretty good next year.
SCVTV: Over the years, it seems to depend on whose shirt you wear — either Harry Welch is the greatest or the worst. You love him or you hate him. When it's all said and done, how do you want people to remember Harry Welch?
Welch: I want people to remember me as someone who did the very best he could, who helped other young men — and in my classroom, young men and women — to become better than they would have been, had they not come into my life. I know that when I leave, I'll be so enriched by the people who have played for me, or (whom) I've been privileged to teach.
So, yes, I've heard both sides, and there probably is some validity to both sides, and I acknowledge that. And I respect that. Because I'm certainly not without sin. But I do believe I love these people and I know I'm better for having them touch my life.
I want to be remembered for someone who made other people and their lives better, and I helped them deal with the future, and deal with problems that come up with them, and challenges that come up in their lives. I hope I have helped them be more prepared for life.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.