Has 2013’s surprise become 2014’s sure thing?
It’s too soon for that kind of declaration about Grant High football. But the Lancers seem determined to not go another seven years between winning seasons.
Grant is 2-0 after cruising past Bell, 34-20, on Sept. 5 in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score might indicate. And while beating the so-far winless Eagles wouldn’t resonate in the same way as, say, beating Crenshaw, the win nevertheless does reinforce the belief and mindset Coach Rudy De La Torre has been trying to install at Grant going on five years.
“Have we changed the culture? I think so,” said De La Torre, a congenial sort away from the sideline. “The discipline issues are the same for every school. A lot of these guys want to be leaders, be hotshots. But they do work hard, and they know there are consequences for their actions. We work them out hard, but they’re always here. They’re good kids; we love these guys. In the games they put their hearts out there.”
That, along with the dedication to practice and condition, is what De La Torre asks of his players. The roster is thin — 32 players listed, and probably 27 will suit up for this week’s game against Lincoln of Los Angeles. Any long-term rash of injuries would be devastating. And the experience level is varied; Although there are 12 seniors, De La Torre is starting four 10th graders. And when a couple of veteran starters were hurt in the Bell game, the coach inserted two players in their first year of playing football anywhere.
Last year’s main contributors to the Grant team that went 8-4 overall and finished in a three-way tie for second place in the East Valley League were primarily the 16 seniors no longer here. In reshuffling the deck, De La Torre has found several underclassmen more than willing to step up.
Three of them are juniors: quarterback Jorge Mercado, and wide receivers Justin Fadario and Chad Holloway. Mercado was supposed to be the backup this season, but earned the starting position. Fadario and Holloway stand 6-3 and 6-4, giving Mercado a pair ofprime targets.
“I know if I throw the ball up to them, I know they’ll catch it,” said Mercado, 16. “They’re a huge aspect as to why I’ve thrown for so many touchdowns and so many yards.”
Fadario, 16, had never played football until coming to Grant. But his size and development is such that it would be understandable if he was enticed to attend other schools with more prominent football programs. Yet he insists he’s staying here.
“I like it here,” he said. “It’s more of a family atmosphere; the people here are like my brothers. I feel more acclimated here.”
Holloway, who opened the Bell game with a 75-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, said he and Fadario have a friendly competition on who can be the most productive. He is happy the two of them can cause major matchup problems for defenders.
“We’re both competitive players, and we can do a lot of things,” said Holloway, 15. “We can make spectacular catches, we have a good quarterback who finds us.”
Perhaps the glue is running back Christopher Lacayo. The 17-year-old senior is somewhat of a self-made player willing to grind for hours in the weight room and in film study to be as prepared as possible. He enjoyed the taste of winning he got last year, and hated the taste of being eliminated in the City Division II quarterfinals.
“We lost to Granada Hills in the second round, and we weren’t satisfied. We wanted more, we wanted a City championship. Personally, I was telling everyone I didn’t like the fact we lost. I don’t like losing. So I knew we had to work,” Lacayo said.
A victory on Friday, Sept. 12, against Lincoln could set up Grant for a potential roll of wins until the East Valley League showdown game with Arleta on Oct. 24. It’s too soon for De La Torre or the players to think that far ahead; they must stay healthy and continue to improve.
But it’s not a pipe dream.
“I know we can win games,” De La Torre said. “I’m trying to go 10-0. But I say that every year. These guys have to believe that, too. And I think they’re starting to believe they can.”