Since taking over as head coach in 2009, Jim Rose has worked diligently to keep Birmingham football a competitive program. And for the most part he has done so, with a 36-30 record that includes winning or sharing the last four West Valley League titles.
But there has also developed a maddening level of frustration. Since last winning a City Division I title in 2007, Birmingham has been unable to get past the second round of the playoffs.
There is a singular thread binding those playoff results. Each loss that ended the Patriots’ season has occurred on the road — or “down the hill” as they like to say here. If Birmingham has a home playoff game, its usually the first game. Then the Patriots travel to play a higher seeded team, and get beat.
Can the 2015 Patriots finally end that frustration?
There are signs it is possible.
The group of returning skill position players is one of the deepest Rose has had in some time, both in talent and experience. It would start with All-City first team running back Sterling Salguero, who rushed for 1,837 yards rushing and 23 touchdowns (although Salguero was not a practice on this reporter’s visit). The receiving corps returns nearly intact. There is a change at quarterback — last year’s starter Oreste Simi has graduated — but Rose even sees new starter Ryan Mendoza as an upgrade.
“He came late last year — he played for us on varsity as a freshman a little bit, not as a sophomore — and he probably would have started had he been there all of last year. He didn’t join us until Game Four,” Rose said of Mendoza, who is also a touted baseball prospect as a catcher.
“He had played both sports until his sophomore year. I don’t think it’s anything new. I think he’ll be a great game manager. He’s a smart kid.”
The biggest concern is the offensive line, which is crucial for the run-oriented offense Birmingham prefers. Only one starter returns: Juan Godinez, at center. The bulk of summer practice will be to determine the other four starters.
“We have a couple of guys who could play guard that we’re happy with,” Rose said. “They’re not huge, 230-pound guys, but they can move. The tackle spots right now are the biggest question. If we have to, we’ll move a tight end to tackle.”
The defense will have to play well until the offense finds its rhythm. But Birmingham is stacked there, too. The Patriots have two All-City linebackers: first team selection Solomone Taufahema, who led the Patriots with 109 tackles; and second team selection Eric Flowers, who had 65 tackles.
Flowers’ selection is even more impressive considering he only played five games. He missed the nonleague part of the schedule while recovering from a broken right collarbone.
Flowers said he hated being a spectator during that stretch. “I was there at every single game, cheering on my teammates, but at the end of day I still wished I could have played in those games,” he said.
Both Flowers and Taufahema expect the defense to be the strongest part of the Patriots’ team. There are nine returning starters. Besides the two All-City linebackers, the secondary boasts three all-league cornerbacks in Anthony Brown, Ronnie Lewis and Tylin Scott. The defensive line, like the offensive line, could have some growing pains. But Birmingham could be pretty solid by the time West Valley League play starts.
“I think it means our defense, and the overall team, will be a bit more disciplined,” Flowers said. “Last year for a lot of people it was their first year playing varsity. Now they know what to expect.”
“[The defense] gets better by working hard in the hot days in the summer,” Taufahema said. “Our whole defense basically came back, so we all know what we are doing. We’re only missing my brother and [Spencer] Keyes. Our defense should stay strong.”
What also will be worth noting is how Birmingham — and all City teams — react to having a mandatory “dead period,” meaning coaches and players cannot have any contact for three consecutive weeks. The “dead period” must be completed before July 28, because then all teams must begin full practices for the 2015 season. All City sports now have a “dead period,” not just football.
Birmingham’s starts on Monday, June 22, and practice resumes July 13.
“Personally I’m not a fan of it,” Rose said. “In the past we’ve taken the whole week of July Fourth off, and throughout the summer give them Fridays off or extend the weekend. I think three weeks is a long time. Our guys have access to a lot of things, like gyms and stuff. But they’re probably not gonna do much but hang out for three weeks. So everything we’ve built up to on the field will be lost.”
Rose said City officials could review the three-week policy after a year. “I’d be much more comfortable with two weeks. Three weeks can become, when you’re starting something, it can become a habit. It can also become a dis-habit in three weeks if you’re not doing anything.
“They’re kids,” the coach continued. “I don’t expect them to go out and practice four times a week on their own. We’ll see if this works. It’s new. The Southern Section schools have been doing it quite awhile. We’ll see.”
However it works out, the Patriots must be ready when the season starts because the nonleague schedule, again, is merciless. Birmingham opens against Newbury Park, and also will play Notre Dame, Chaminade, and Oaks Christian of Westlake. The only change: Birmingham will play Canoga Park instead of Fairfax of Los Angeles as its fifth nonleague game.
That schedule will probably have the Pats ready for league. Going beyond league…that is still to be determined.
“Me [and Eric] have lost in the second round twice, and that feeling sucks.,” Taufahema said. “We wanna beat that in our senior year.”
“I feel like our team is equipped to go past the second round if we stay disciplined, and do our jobs,” Flowers said. “ (He and Taufahema) will make sure they do their jobs.”