When last seen on the football field in December, the Sylmar Spartans were slowly walking back to their team bench looking dazed and confused after getting pounded by Hamilton of Los Angeles in the City Section Division II championship game in the Coliseum, 58-30.
But once the hurt and disappointment faded away, Sylmar — with most of its team coming back — could look forward to making another title run.
Well, much can happen over seven months. And something big happened to the Sylmar program. The Spartans were moved back into Division I by the City re-leaguing committee. (Ironically, so was Hamilton.) It is City’s toughest division, and has been dominated by the likes of Crenshaw of Los Angeles and Narbonne of Harbor City the past few years.
The last Valley area team to win a City Division I title was Birmingham, which won back-to-back championships in 2006 and 2007.
But the Spartans — who won City 4A titles in 1992 and 1994 — aren’t sitting around this summer bemoaning their fate. The team has embraced the move, even though the odds of bringing back a banner to Sylmar this season have significantly increased.
“When (former) Coach Chris (Richards) was here, we were D-I,” Sylmar Coach John Brazil said. “And when we went down to D-II, it was kind of a letdown for us; the coaches’ mentality was, ‘we want to be D-I.’ And we felt we had D-I level players at the time.
“Going back up to D-I is ultimately what we wanted. We know the top-tier talent was there. So we were looking forward to it. We feel we might have been the No. 1 seed had we stayed down there. But our guys are very competitive, and they want to play the top tier.”
“I thought it was a good choice. I feel like we belong in Division I,” said quarterback Clarence Williams Jr., 17, a senior. “It’s gonna take a lot to get to the championship game, more than last year. We’ve gotta come together as a team even more, get stronger as a whole, and play to the higher level of the competition. And we’ll be alright moving forward.”
Williams enjoyed a fabulous 2014 season, completing 148 of 198 passes for 3,063 yards and 42 touchdowns against six interceptions. The Division II co-Player of the Year led the Spartans to an 11-3 overall record and the Valley Mission League championship. Sylmar was nearly unstoppable with Williams running its spread offense, averaging 46.3 points per game.
Two of his top receivers — Anthony Muse and Daniel Mendoza, with a combined 58 receptions for 1,249 yards and 22 touchdowns — have graduated. But two of the returning wideouts, Malik Martin and Andrew Simpson, are expected to provide similar production.
Simpson, 17, a senior, believes any receiver can shine in the Spartans’ offense with Williams operating it. “C.J. gets the ball around to everybody. I like that about him,” Simpson said.
“We are just all trying to get better now,” adds Martin, 17, a senior. “We’re all upset we had that loss in the championship game. We’re trying to get better.”
The other crucial skill player is Marcus Gandy, 18, a senior and three-year varsity starter who rushed for 949 yards on 61 carries, caught 12 passes for another 330 yards, and scored a total of 20 touchdowns. Amazingly, Gandy had another possible 15 touchdowns wiped out by penalties.
He hasn’t been able to look at the film of the Hamilton game — “Too painful,” he said — but that hasn’t stopped Gandy from seeking ways to be even better this year.
“I’m going to try and finish,” he said. “I’m working on my speed and strength, and being able to finish through the tackles. Get that extra 1-2 yards.”
A lot went right for the Spartans until that final game. A lot more has to go right for Sylmar to be a contender in Division I. While skill players are here in abundance, the offensive line must be rebuilt — Francisco Navarro is the lone returning starter, and he will move from guard to tackle. The defensive line will also be reshuffled around the returning Edward Nobles.
Brazil does have some depth at linebacker, including all-league selection Jack Jenkins and returning starter Austin Moore, and at defensive back. And there will be call-ups from last year’s undefeated junior varsity team. Still, the defense may have to carry a bigger load in the beginning while the offense gets established.
“We have leadership and experience, and hopefully that can take us a long way,” Brazil said. “We have our core of skill players. Our [linemen] will probably need a game or so, because we were senior-heavy on the line last year. We won’t be tall; but we will be smart, strong and quick.”
Sylmar will need to dominate Valley Mission again to try and earn a decent playoff berth. The Spartans and San Fernando are the Division I teams in the league. It’s almost imperative that one of them not only wins league, but is undefeated in doing so to guarantee at least one home playoff game.
Of course, this is only July. There are 10 regular season games to play before the playoffs. And Sylmar will have six of them at home this season, starting with Crespi on Aug. 28. Brazil is eager for a good start, especially after the Sylmar fan base responded well to the success of the 2014 team.
“I think the alumni is very excited we are back up to D-I,” the coach said “I got a lot of calls and emails — ‘my son wants to come play at Sylmar’ — so getting to the championship game, even though we lost, kind of renewed the energy around this community.”