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August 9, 2012
Earlier this year, players and coaches at Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) encountered the type of dilemma that every other high school in the country would have loved to face.
With an alum in the secondary for both the New York Giants and New England Patriots, which team would they root for in the Super Bowl?
Terrell Thomas graduated from Rancho Cucamonga in 2003 and spent last season on injured reserve with the Giants after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in the preseason.
Patrick Chung, a 2004 Rancho Cucamonga graduate, plays safety for the Patriots. "We were torn between who to pick to win," said Chris Hawkins, a four-star cornerback recruit beginning his senior year at Rancho Cucamonga this fall. "We all chose Patrick to win because Terrell was hurt and wasn't playing."
Hawkins and teammate Tahaan Goodman would love to put Rancho Cucamonga's coaches in a similar quandary several years from now.
The Hawkins-Goodman duo has continued Rancho Cucamonga's uncanny history of producing quality defensive backs.
Goodman, who remains uncommitted, is the No. 2 safety and No. 29 overall prospect in the 2013 class. Hawkins, who has committed to USC, is ranked seventh among cornerbacks and 78th overall.
They're continuing quite a tradition.
Rancho Cucamonga also produced Gerald Alexander, a former Boise State safety who was selected by the Detroit Lions in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft. Devin Ross, a former second-team all-Pac-10 cornerback at Arizona, is another Rancho Cucamonga product.
What has made this school such a pipeline for secondary talent? Nobody's quite sure.
"I don't know," said Nick Baiz, who is entering his seventh season as Rancho Cucamonga's coach. "We have a good pool of athletes in this area, in the Inland Empire. I can't explain it."
Baiz noted the entire Inland Empire area has done a good job of producing defensive backs.
Eric Weddle, a two-time All-Pro safety with the San Diego Chargers, played at nearby Alta Loma (Calif.) High before signing with Utah as a two-star prospect in 2003. He isn't the only under-the-radar prospect from this era to outperform his ranking. Chung and Alexander both progressed from two-star recruits to second-round draft picks.
That history resonates with Rancho Cucamonga's current defensive backs.
"We talk about it a lot," Goodman said. "It's a big thing for us. We can try to model after them and try to follow in their footsteps."
The difference is that Goodman and Hawkins have much higher recruiting rankings than their predecessors.
Chung and Alexander were two-star recruits who outperformed their rankings. Thomas was a three-star prospect who joined Chung and Alexander as a second-round draft pick. Goodman and Hawkins are both Rivals100 recruits.
Their rankings suggest the Inland Empire is getting some overdue credit for its ability to produce defensive backs.
"The Inland Empire hasn't gotten the attention it deserves in terms of talent," Rivals.com West recruiting analyst Adam Gorney said. "I think there's a really good system of getting kids out early and getting them involved early. There's a little bit better school system than the city schools, so their development is a little more advanced.
"A lot of Inland Empire kids now are doing a lot of good things. I think this is just one of those programs where they've kind of lucked into some kids. Rancho Cucamonga is a pretty big area, and having Chris Hawkins and Tahaan Goodman on the same team -- two four-star guys who are pushing five stars -- is definitely kind of special."
Baiz understands that as well as anyone.
He appreciates the luxury that comes with having two Rivals100 prospects in the same secondary. Baiz also capitalizes on Goodman's versatility by occasionally playing him at outside linebacker and allowing him to blitz.
"Chris is just a very good athlete, a real fluid athlete," Baiz said. "He's got great ball instincts. He's just a smart athlete. Tahaan is just like a missile. He's big, fast and strong. He's just a freakish kind of guy."
Those freakish abilities have caught the attention of college coaches across the country.
While Hawkins has been committed to USC since April, Goodman remains undecided. He's one of only eight uncommitted top-30 prospects.
"He fits an SEC-style defense," Gorney said. "He's high-flying, athletic, all over the place, really a strong and physical player. SEC schools are very much involved, but I wouldn't count out UCLA. I think they're definitely a contender. I think there's a lot of (interest) in staying closer to home. I wouldn't count out ASU, Washington, Cal. Lots of schools are very involved, but I'd say either Pac-12 or SEC right now.''
Hawkins and Goodman want to make an impact in the college ranks and eventually join the fraternity of Rancho Cucamonga defensive backs in the NFL. They lead a defense that also features three-star linebacker prospects A.J. Latu and Viliami Latu.
As Hawkins and Goodman get ready to begin their senior seasons in high school, they're taking inspiration from the guys who preceded them.
"Me and Tahaan, we're trying to create our own legacy and become the next great ones to come out," Hawkins said.
And if they ever start feeling down on themselves, they don't need to look far for motivation. The most recent Super Bowl should give them all the encouragement they need.
"It pumped me up a lot," Hawkins said. "It made me work even harder, to see two defensive backs from our school playing in the Super Bowl. Me and Tahaan both want to get there one day, so it makes us work even harder."