Their first game of the 2015 prep season is just eight days away. And San Fernando High won’t go into that Aug. 28 opening game against visiting Cleveland without a lot of questions.
But there is one very big question that must be answered to determine what kind of season the Tigers might have.
Quite simply, can they get better quarterback play in 2015 than they did in 2014.
Last year the Tigers were coming off back-to-back City Section Division II championships and a perfect season (14-0) in 2013. Cristian Solano, their quarterback in those title years (and now at the University of Nevada-Reno) was arguably the best QB in school history, setting records in yardage and touchdown passes in both championship years.
Robert Gonzalez, a senior, did his best last year to fill those awfully big shoes but came up quite short, throwing on six touchdowns. That meant San Fernando — which has moved up to Division I — was pretty a one-dimensional offense, running the ball. That would work against average teams, but not very good ones. Add in the motivation teams like Sylmar, Arleta and Canoga Park brought to those games, not just wanting to beat San Fernando but pour it on if possible.
Which is why the Tigers, despite still reaching the playoff quarterfinals, were 6-6 overall.
“Last year we took some punches, some teams had it in for us,” noted Tigers Coach Robert Garcia, now in his fourth year. “But we fought to the second round of the playoffs. We did get better as the season went on.”
In anticipation of an up-and-down season, Coach Garcia mixed several young underclassmen into the varsity roster in part to start preparing them for the demands of Division I.
“Last year I brought up seven JV players, all freshmen, who will be varsity-experienced sophomores,” the coach said. “ A lot of those kids had never played in a playoff game. Now they have two under their belts. We have a few players from the 14-0 team, familiar to the winning tradition we’ve had since I’ve been here. But there’s [also] new faces buying into the program. I think we should be alright.”
Garcia envisions a group of players that can grow together over the next couple of years. The fastest growth must come from sophomore Joshua Garcia, who gets the first opportunity as the quarterback. If Joshua Garcia can master the amount of playbook the coaches will trust him to learn, and if he can establish a better connection with the receivers, Coach Garcia is cautiously optimistic that San Fernando can compete with defending league champion Sylmar and Canoga Park for the Valley Mission title.
Should Joshua Garcia instead develop slowly or struggle, the Tigers will probably again be primarily a running team. They did average 164.3 rushing yards a game and scored 22 touchdowns. But the passing game only provided another 106.8 yards a game and another six TDs, which did little to sustain drives on offense and keep the defense fresh.
“We had to adapt to what we had last year,” Coach Garcia said. “We had a senior quarterback and a freshman quarterback, and we went with the senior guy. It was ‘get the ball and throw it as fast as you can.’ But the younger guy, we felt this is the year to get him some experience. Running was our strength, so we ran more than usual. I usually like balancing things and we’ll throw a little more this year.”
Still, it’s no wonder that once the Tigers got tired, they offered little or no defensive resistance. In the six losses, they gave up fewer than 20 points only once. And that was in the season-ending defeat to Eagle Rock, 19-7.
That loss still rankles offensive and defensive lineman Abel Romero, a senior. “That was a winnable game,” he said. But the disappointing season was more about the cracks and fissures within the team itself, rather than any talent limitations.
“It was stressful,” said Romero, 17, who had transferred to San Fernando from Crespi High. “Our coaches were on us, and it was difficult. We had this target on our backs. We tried our hardest.
“Did the team get better? Communicationswise, no. Playingwise, we got better — we keep grinding. But it was just stressful.”
Even though the Tigers are moving up a division instead of down, Romero said he is already seeing a more unified group of players so far. “We have become closer. It’s more of a brotherhood. We’re gonna take things very seriously this year … We have to keep bonding with D-I coming. It’s going to be a lot different.”
Another senior, defensive back Daniel Barragan, supports Romero’s perspective.
“There is a lot more confidence. And the best thing about training camp is everyone is competing and trying to earn a spot,” said Barragan, 17.
“Is there pressure? There’s always pressure playing for San Fernando and wearing the black-and-gold on your chest. Back in the 70s they had really good teams [in Division I] and we’re trying to bring that back.”
Coach Garcia sees a collection of players that he believes can and will compete. The linemen have been lifting twice a day — “a lot more than we usually do” — to build and maintain a necessary level of strength. Most of the running backs return, and so do several of the receivers. The defense “is pretty solid” in Coach Garcia’s view.
Now it’s an eight-day countdown to find out if the Tigers are ready this year for Division I football.
Or if Division I football is ready for the Tigers.