Lee Walker (10) runs for yardage against Monrovia in Madison's CIF regional bowl game victory on Dec. 8.
Since their debut in 2006, the CIF state championship bowl games have provided an annual destination for college recruiters. They wield binoculars from the stands or stalk the sidelines at the Home Depot Center in Carson, where California’s best meet in a two-day showcase of team competition and individual talent.
This year’s crop of blue-chip prospects holds scholarship offers from the likes of Cal, Michigan and USC. Long Beach Poly, which played in the Division I game Friday night against Granite Bay, boasts perhaps the most tantalizing collection of recruits, headlined by linebacker and UCLA commit Jayon Brown. The Bruins have also extended offers to receiver John Smith and cornerback Iman Marshall. Another corner, David Price, has an offer from Arizona.
Rich Rodriguez’s Wildcats, though, will train their eyes on one team in particular. When Madison faces Marin Catholic in the Division III game Saturday at noon, the Warhawks will be led by a pair of Arizona commits in running back Pierre Cormier and wideout Lee Walker. The Wildcats have offered a scholarship to receiver Michael Garner. Fellow juniors and defensive ends Jake and Sam Vermillion have also generated interest in Tucson, a six-hour drive from San Diego.
“They’re recruiting guys they think can play for them,” Madison coach Rick Jackson said. “They’re not just gonna recruit guys because we get along.”
Jackson’s spread-option offense certainly resembles the one run by Rich Rodriguez at Arizona. In Cormier and Walker, the Warhawks have two seniors capable of scoring from any hash mark. Sophomore quarterback Kareem Coles, who like Wildcats passer Matt Scott operates out of the shotgun, throws and runs with equal ease. Garner lines up in the slot, supplying another home-run threat for Madison’s fast-twitch attack.
“I think it’d be an easy transition coming from high school to college in that offense,” said Cormier, who has rushed for 1,976 yards and 26 touchdowns this season. “I’ve been playing it the last four years, so I think I’d have a little bit of an edge over other guys coming in.”
Cormier committed to Arizona in August, choosing the Wildcats over such programs as Boise State, Nebraska and UCLA. His pledge came just days after Walker walked into Rich Rodriguez’s office and told the coach, “I commit.” Cormier, Walker and Garner were all taking an unofficial visit to Arizona.
“I saw who their players were and I saw their practice,” said Walker, who has 679 yards and 11 TDs through the air. “They practice just like us. They all came together as a team.”
Warhawks offensive line coach Jorge Reyes understands Walker’s sentiment. Reyes, a former Madison lineman who played for Jackson, chaperoned the recruiting trip to Arizona.
“The coolest thing was watching Coach Rodriguez. (It) reminded me a lot of Coach Jackson, and the kids noticed that,” Reyes said. “His intensity, the way he talks, the way he communicates — when he’s talking to the team he’s looking to his left, he’s looking to his right, looking at every single one of his players. He makes them feel like one of his children.”
During that same trip, Rodriguez pulled Garner aside, making it a trio of offers for Madison. Tears welled up in Garner’s eyes as he listened to his first college offer, this one straight from the mouth of a Pac-12 coach.
“Man, it felt good,” said Garner, who has five touchdowns catches. “It was a surprise.”
Garner, who has yet to make his college decision, plans on taking another visit to Arizona next summer. For now, he’s focused on winning the final game of Cormier and Walker’s high school careers.
“I think next year I’m gonna have to step up and kinda be that guy who’s gonna have to carry the team,” Garner said. “We’re down two great athletes (in Cormier and Walker), and it’s gonna be hard shoes to fill.”
Today, all three athletes will step onto the same field — possibly for the last time, possibly to be reunited in the not-so-distant future in not-so-distant Tucson.