M. Terry / SFVS

Growing Together — Canoga Park players Joshua Grant, Deonte Perry and Daniel Rivera say the football team wants to compete for the Division II title.

Good hunters are usually at their best when sneaking up on their targets, staying unnoticed until the time is right to strike and the prey falls into the trap.

It kind of describes the 2015 football season Canoga Park is having.

Back in September, these Hunters weren’t on many radars after losing three of their first four games. But as the season has gone along, Canoga Park has solidified by winning its last three games, all in the Valley Mission League.

The Hunters are looking more and more like the main threat to defending champion Sylmar for this year’s title, especially if Canoga wins next two games, starting with visiting Panorama on Friday, Oct. 16. The Hunters are also starting to appear as a contender — along with Chatsworth, Los Angeles, Grant, and Hawkins of Los Angeles— for the City Section Division II championship, something Canoga Park last played for in 2012.

Nothing would please Coach Ivan Moreno more than for this current group of Hunters to wind up having an extended playoff run.

“It’s unique here at Canoga Park,” Moreno said. “We have kids who haven’t played a lot of football. We may have juniors and seniors, but my perception and definition of ‘young’ here is that there’s not a lot of game experience.

“Last year we were a Division I team. We played one game in the playoffs and got blown out. If we had been in Division II and played 2-3 playoff games, then I wouldn’t say they were ‘young.’ Because of the lack of deep playoff run, I’d say they don’t have a lot of experience.”

So there is still a sense of unknown about Canoga Park. Beyond high-octane running back Deonte Perry, who’s already rushed for 973 yards and 13 touchdowns on 100 carries, there aren’t many players known outside of their families. And it’s even taken awhile for this group to reach a comfort level with each other.

“We’re getting smarter about the game,” said Joshua Grant, a senior who plays safety and linebacker. “We understand the defense and offense more. The majority of the players, we don’t have to think about what we’re doing, we can just react.”

Another team veteran, linebacker Danny Rivera, notes how this group of Hunters is understanding more and more the kind of communication and commitment that is needed to excel on the field.

“Our coaches think we have the potential every year to get to the title game,” Rivera said. “The talent we have is hidden, and we don’t always embrace it ourselves. But when we all talk together, we have the same potential of that (2012) team to go to a championship game.

“Every day we would talk and say ‘if you really want a championship ring, you have to come to practice and work hard.’ Everyone got it in their heads and wanted to be part of this.”

Perry, a senior, has been the blessing on the Hunters’ fortunes. He transferred to Canoga Park from Notre Dame High in Sherman Oaks; he sat out last year, and now gives the Hunters one of the speediest players in City football.

“We’re lucky to have him,” Moreno said. “He was eighth-fastest in the state in the 200. We just have to get him in space” to burn opponent defenses.

The Hunters are lucky Perry wanted to play at all. He said he grew somewhat disenchanted with football while at Notre Dame, and considered giving up the sport. That changed when he got to Canoga Park.

“What they brought to me was a love for football again,” Perry said. “If I was still at Notre Dame, I probably would have quit. [Canoga Park] rejuvenated me.”

Still, Perry might have wondered for a moment what he was getting back into when, during summer practice, the team appeared at times disinterested in the game. “In August we were having problems getting people to show up to practice. But [the change in commitment from then to now] was huge. Now we have everybody coming. Now it’s a matter of knowing what you have to do, making smart decisions on the field.”

Rivera agrees with Perry’s assessment. He admits being one who wasn’t always there in the summer because of his work schedule.  But I still managed to come most of the time,” he said.

For Moreno, the level of team maturity may determine how the rest of this season plays out for Canoga Park. The early tough schedule — the losses were to Taft, Birmingham and Palisades, all City Division I teams — seems to be paying off now with the Hunters appearing to peak at the right time.  He said he and his coaching staff must make sure the players are only concentrating on this week’s game against Panorama, and not assuming a league-deciding showdown with Sylmar on Nov. 6.

“Maturity-wise, we still have some room to grow,” Moreno said. “I think that’s one of the things we’re talking about [this week]. We should have played better (against Reseda on Oct. 9, a 14-6 victory), and we didn’t. That stems from a maturity aspect as a team, and me, too. There are some things I should have done better.

“Last week was really close to being a ‘trap’ game. We’re gonna talk about that this week with the kids; I’m not sure they understand the parlance … but we have to play a complete game, and that was one of things lacking last week.”

Because no Hunter wants to be trapped by “the game.”

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