Banning is in position to go into the playoffs with more confidence than the Pilots have had in several years.The biggest victory for Wilmington Banning in the last two seasons was in serious jeopardy.
Unbeaten Venice, then ranked 12th by The Times and considered a likely challenger for the City Section championship this season, had just scored a touchdown to pull to within 21-19 with 1:39 left to play.
Everyone in the stands and on the sidelines at Venice High knew exactly who would get the ball for the two-point conversion attempt.
But Curtis McNeal, the Gondoliers' immensely talented running back, never reached the end zone.
Banning linebacker Josh Valoaga beat his blocker, latched onto McNeal from a yard out and then got help from safety Matt White to make the tackle. After the recovery of an onside kick, the Pilots ran out the clock to record a victory that returned them to a level of credibility they haven't reached in years.
Last Friday's 31-18 loss to Harbor City Narbonne showed the Pilots they are not all the way back to the level of dominance they have enjoyed in the past. But Banning is still in position to win the league, or at least go into the playoffs with more confidence than the Pilots have had in several years.
Banning has 12 City football championships but hasn't hung a banner in its gym since 2000. After finishing 4-7 last season, including a 55-7 first-round playoff loss to Venice, the Pilots are 6-1 overall and 1-1 in the Marine League going into Friday's league game at Gardena (0-7, 0-2).
The turnaround began with the return of Coach Chris Ferragamo, who coached Banning from 1975 to '87, compiling a 158-34-4 record and winning eight City titles, including six in a row from 1976 to 1981, before taking over the program at nearby Harbor College.
"I thought the Banning kids would go there, but the [Harbor] program didn't have the stature it does now, and they went to other schools," said Ferragamo, who spent two seasons at Harbor and won no titles.
He coached the offensive line at Long Beach College from 1989 to '92, then became coach of the L.A. Heat, a Los Angeles City Fire Department team based in Wilmington, from 1996 to 2001.
By then Ferragamo, whose younger brother Vince was a quarterback with the Los Angeles Rams, decided he wanted a break from full-time coaching. He went into semi-retirement the next five years, occasionally volunteering to help with the Banning frosh-soph team.
He was named the Pilots' varsity coach last season, replacing Mo Espinosa, whose team went 1-9 in 2005.
Ferragamo's rebuilding effort began with the defense. And it's that defense, led by Valoaga and fellow linebackers Hanipale Suega and Jason Chatmon, that has returned Banning to title contention.
"As a unit they are tenacious and great tacklers," Ferragamo said. "Josh and Jason bring quickness -- we have a lot more quickness and speed than last year. . . . All three can shed blocks and make tackles. That's what we didn't do last year, attack people with defense."
Valoaga, a senior outside linebacker, has 39 tackles, one fumble recovery and 2 1/2 sacks. He is energetic and emotional, and his coaches say that makes him vulnerable to over-running plays or being susceptible to fakes.
"Sometimes we have to slow his motor down," defensive coordinator Eddie Barreras said.
Drawing interest from Fresno State, Valoaga, 17, credits Ferragamo and the year-plus he has played in his coach's defensive system for making him a better player.
"They had good coaches [before Ferragamo], but I had never experienced coaching like this before," Valoaga said. "It took me a long time to develop into a good player."
Suega, a junior inside linebacker who calls the defensive signals, has 39 tackles, two sacks and four tipped passes. He said the Pilots have improved because the players have stopped talking about being good and are doing what it takes to be successful, including putting in the necessary time at practice.
"Last year, as a team. . . there was a lot of thinking going on, on and off the field," Suega, 16, said. "This year, we pretty much know what we have to do.
"From last year to this year, everything has gotten better. For one thing, we run a lot more. The coaches say, 'Run hard on Monday and it will pay off on Friday,' and it has."
Chatmon, another junior, is the other outside linebacker with 22 tackles, two recovered fumbles and four sacks. This is his first year playing football for Banning but not his first year in pads. He injured his right knee while playing in a recreational league last year and required surgery.
Ferragamo said he had never met Chatmon before watching him dunk a basketball during a physical education class.
"Growing up, I had heard his name but I didn't know who he was," Chatmon said of the veteran coach. "But he pulled me out of my P.E. class, told me I had speed and good footwork and good vision. He wanted me to play running back, but once he tried me out at linebacker he said I had God-given talent."
Banning's current success has not gone unnoticed. Athletic Director Kathy Blankenship said it was "standing room only" for the Pilot's Oct. 12 homecoming game against Washington, and Trani's, a popular restaurant in Long Beach, wants to host the team for lunch before its game on Friday.
Said Ferragamo: "It's nice that people are thinking about us."