Not every high school football coach would be thrilled to open the paper the day after his team handily won its first game, and read how it was the first step for his team that could lead to a state championship game.
Even if it’s true, no coach wants his team thinking it’s that good this early. Because there’s still too much that can happen during a season, i.e. injuries and suspensions, that can quickly derail a promising year.
But Jon Ellinghouse didn’t exactly fall out of his chair, get up and start firing off angry missives to those publications heaping great expectations on his Sierra Canyon High team after it rolled over Palisades of Pacific, 42-7, in the Trailblazer’s Aug. 28 season opener.
“There is a lot of hype in the [nonleague] season and we’ve dealt with that before, to be honest,” said Ellinghouse, speaking from his campus office before heading to the weight room to supervise a team workout. “So I guess I don’t cringe as much as I used to. Some years you live up to the hype, and some years you fall short. It’s gonna be up to the kids’ character and ability to deal with that.”
There’s nothing wrong with trying to build an elite program, something Ellinghouse and his staff have been striving toward since the school began playing varsity 11-man football in 2009. And the effort has been particularly fruitful; in that span of time, the Trailblazers have gone 62-15 overall. That includes a 15-0 season in 2011, when they won the state Division IV championship bowl game against Le Grand High.
And now, with a young but talented team returning 15 starters from an 11-2 season in 2014 that included a spot in the Southern Section’s Mid Valley Division (where they lost to eventual division champion Pomona), it makes sense why some pundits are forecasting a possible Trailblazers’ run to this year’s state title game.
Again, not so fast, Ellinghouse said.
“They have some more growth before I’d put these guys in the state championship game,” the coach said. “They’ve got the ability to grow into that. But right now we’re trying to get better every week, and getting these guys focused on becoming a great football team. I think they could end up doing it.”
Yet a glance at the backs and receivers that will be unleashed on St Genevieve this Saturday, Sept. 5, can make outsiders envious at the core group of talent at Sierra Canyon.
Quarterback Niko Harris, a junior, was the starter last year (although he missed part of the season with a knee injury) and is in complete control of the offense. He was an efficient 10 of 16 passing for 179 yards and three touchdowns in three quarters of work against Palisades. A pair of senior receivers, Eric Markes and Khol Hollinquist, have verbally committed to the University of Pennsylvania. And then there’s running back Bobby Cole, a junior, who ripped through the Palisades defense for 152 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 carries. He, too, didn’t see much fourth quarter action.
“I think the strength of our team is that there are not a lot of superstars, quote unquote,” Ellinghouse said. “We’ve got a really balanced team with a lot of talented kids. But there’s not ‘one guy’ we’re gonna rely on.
“Last week, Bobby Cole might have been our superstar. But it could be somebody different this week. That’s kind of the team we have … At anytime we have four receivers I feel could be a leading receiver in the game. We have a quarterback who I think is the best in the Valley for his age group.”
But Ellinghouse concedes that Cole is a gem.
“Bobby will get plenty of interest [from colleges] if he keeps playing the way he did last week. He was a very good player as a sophomore, but has taken a step up in game, which is exciting for me. He’s a lot more dynamic back this year.”
It’s hard to think how much more dynamic Cole can become. As a sophomore he rushed for 1,126 yards and 10 touchdowns while sharing the ball with senior Kaizer Butler (now at Lafayette College in Easton, Penn.). On other teams Cole would be the featured player, not simply the featured back. But he said he likes Sierra Canyon’s spread-the-wealth philosophy.
“There is no ‘one man on our team. We have players all over the field. That’s why I think we’re a dangerous team,” Cole said.
Nor is Cole espousing any “we’re going all the way in 2015” rhetoric.
“You never really know until later in the season,” he said. “Early it’s about the team developing. You never really know what you can do until later in the season, until the seventh or eighth game as you see your team mold together.”
Cole won’t understate the obvious, however. “We could be good. ‘State,’ that’s the ultimate goal for every team. I think this team could be really good.”
Cole did his part to get better in the offseason. Feeling too heavy at a playing weight of 195 last fall, he has streamlined his physique by 15 pounds. He also did a lot of running work to improve his speed.
That 12.7 yards-per-carry average against Palisades might not have been a one-time thing.
“I feel a lot faster and quick, and actually feel stronger,” Cole said. “I took some fat off. I had a little chunkiness on me, but I worked on turning that into muscle.”
The Trailblazers have nine more regular season games and at least four playoff rounds to reach that pinnacle state title game. They must survive injury, and mature their younger players on defense.
But they promise to be a fun team to watch develop as the 2015 season unfolds.
And who knows what Ellinghouse and Cole — and the rest of us — will be reading about Sierra Canyon football in the middle of December.