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LAKE FOREST – Most sophomores in high school still are trying to find their way around campus, but El Toro’s Conner Manning had to find his way to the locker room in a hurry.
The Chargers went to Boston for their season opener last season. Manning had practiced with the junior varsity all summer, so he was in street clothes watching from the stands with his dad.
Starting quarterback Mack Spees got knocked out of the game because of an injury. Then backup quarterback Erik Pitts also was hurt. That’s when El Toro coach Rob Frith called on Manning.
“I was in the stands, and I had to come into the game and play in the second half,” Manning said. “All my stuff was in the locker. At halftime, I had to go run into the locker room and change and play in the second half.
“In the summer, I was with the JV the whole time. Then in Boston I just got thrown in. It caught me a little off-guard, but eventually I was fine.”
El Toro ended up losing to Delaware Valley of Milford, Pa., 27-13. Manning took his lumps last season, but he also gained valuable experience. This season, Manning helms one of the most potent offenses in the county. Manning is averaging 286.9 passing yards per game and he has helped the Chargers advance to the CIF-SS Southern Division second round, where they will face Yorba Linda on Friday at 7 p.m. at Trabuco Hills High.
“Actually it wasn’t my best,” Manning said of that first varsity appearance. “I didn’t have a lot of preparation, but the next week I started and settled in a little bit.”
Frith decided to install the no-huddle offense at El Toro, and it has paid huge dividends. El Toro is averaging 41.4 points per game. Manning leads the county in nearly every passing category. He has completed 61 percent of his passes for 3,156 yards and 31 touchdowns with four interceptions.
“Well, it’s a big transformation,” Manning said. “Last year, we were a pro-style offense. We ran the ball a lot. But this year with the tempo we run, I love it. It’s fun and all the guys love it. Right now, we’re just playing good football.
“The way we practice, we’re so used to it now. We practice so hard that on Fridays we’re just out there having fun. So far we’ve been putting up a lot of points.”
The Chargers have five receivers with at least 28 receptions. Cody White has a team-high 62 catches for 944 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“Sooner or later, they’re going to have to call a timeout or we’ll get a big play on them,” White said. “We no-huddle everywhere. We’re always fast.”
Some teams use size and strength to wear down the opposition, but the Chargers choose another option.
“The whole point of this offense is to just wear them down with our tempo,” Manning said.
The Chargers passing attack deservedly gets most of the attention. Manning has five 300-yard passing games, including a 444-yard, five-touchdown performance against Esperanza in the first round. But they also have running back Jacob Furnari, who is averaging 6.6 yards per carry. Furnari has rushed for 1,202 yards and 17 TDs on 182 carries. He ran for 200 yards and two TDs on 31 carries in El Toro’s first-round victory over Esperanza.
“Especially since league, he’s been tearing it up. ” Manning said of Furnari. “He’s given our offense a great balance. The kid is fantastic. He’ll never go down. It takes at least four tackles to get the kid down.”
Manning is no dummy. He’s quick to credit his offensive line for the team’s success.
They are left tackle Clark Steele, left guards Joey Razo and Michael Saavedra, center Tanner Clifford, right guard James DeGaine and right tackle Bryan Rivers.
“The (offensive) line has been a huge part of it,” Manning said. “They are the whole reason we are putting up all these points.”
Manning’s father is a mortgage broker and his mother is a kindergarten teacher. He is the youngest of four siblings.
He has two older brothers who also played football. No, not Peyton and Eli. Manning’s oldest brother, Kyle, was a starting quarterback as a sophomore when he was at El Toro. He went on to play at Orange Coast College and at a Division II school in Arkansas. Manning’s brother, Chris, got a scholarship to play baseball at Valparaiso. Manning’s sister works at Disneyland.
“He’s coached me in everything my whole life,” Manning said of his father. “He’s always hard on me to work hard and get better. He’s been a great part of my success. He coached my older brothers, too. My mom has always been there to support.”
El Toro was a powerhouse in the 1980s, and it had some good years in the 1990s, but the 2000s hadn’t been as successful until Frith arrived in 2009.
“The atmosphere has been so much better and everyone is coming out to the games,” Manning said. “Right now, they are supporting us so much. We gotta thank them. Coach Frith has brought back the tradition.”
What’s been the key to Frith’s success with the players?
“You can just talk to him,” Manning said. “That’s what I like about him, you can just have a normal conversation with him. He just loves to interact with the kids. He knows how to talk to us.”
Manning hasn’t been doing much talking lately. It has been all passing and winning.