This could have easily been about revenge.
There is a ready-made storyline. Chaminade was crushed in its first ever Mission League football meeting against Bishop Amat of La Puente, losing 52-22. The loss seemingly triggered a vortex that sucked the remaining life out of the Eagles: they lost their remaining three games, all by double-digit scores. It was the first time an Ed Croson-led team did not play in the postseason.
But “revenge” is not fueling Chaminade for its game against Bishop Amat on Friday, Oct. 23. Instead, this is a test. A major test for a team dominated by sophomores, trying to qualify for the playoffs in one of the Southern Section’s toughest leagues.
Both teams have excellent records. Bishop Amat is 6-2 overall, and 3-1 in the Mission League. The only league loss was to front-running Serra of Gardena, which is unbeaten. Chaminade is 5-2 overall, and tied with Loyola of Los Angeles for third in league at 2-1. It’s only Mission loss was to Loyola. The Eagles still have to play Serra on Nov. 6, but that is WAY down the road.
Croson emphasized that the beating by the Lancers was not the sole reason the Eagles went on to finish 5-5 in 2014. It was a part of a combination of things that conspired to disrupt and dismantle Chaminade’s season.
“That game was when it finally sunk into the guys that it was no longer 2013,” Croson said.
The coach was referring to the Eagle’s year where they won every championship in sight — the Mission League, the Southern Section’s Western Division, the state Division II South regional bowl game, and the CIF state Division II bowl game.
“We played until Dec. 21 that year,” the coach recalled. “And, really, that team graduated a lot of guys who were on the defense. The kids that stayed thought they were still ‘that’ team. It was almost impossible to get them into the weight room. They were ‘state champs’: they didn’t need to do that. For them, the ticker tape parade lasted well into the spring.”
It didn’t help that 2014 Eagles won their first five games, including a league victory against Loyola. But then the car began to break down. Alemany gave Chaminade it’s first loss. Up next was Notre Dame, which pulled a victory in the final 30 seconds.
“Against Alemany we got smoked. It was like a long celebration coming to an abrupt ending,” Croson said. “And then another unexpected loss that threw us into a funk.”
Then came Bishop Amat.
“We were actually playing with them in the first half. We had scored with 20 seconds left in the half (to cut the Lancers’ lead to 28-15). And then with 14 seconds left they hit an 85-yard touchdown pass,” Croson said.
“That’s when the rest of the air we had went out of our sails. After that it was hard to even get the guys to practice. The guys on that team had never gone through three losses in a row. So there were some lessons learned.”
The problem, however: not that many Eagle starters this season absorbed those lessons. With the exception of a few key seniors like receiver Jordan Chin, linebacker/safety Diamond Harrell, and receiver/defensive back T.J. Brock, Croson is playing a multitude of sophomores. And they will be facing an experienced, senior-dominated Lancers team on Friday.
In someways, having played so much youth on varsity, the Eagles may have already surpassed expectations for this year. But the seniors — who understand that every Mission League game is a grind — want a final shot at the playoffs. The only way to get one of the three guaranteed spots is to keep winning.
Chin, 18, said the players have been working hard since the summer, “and we’ve done all we can to make sure the younger kids are ready to play at this higher level. We’ve practiced hard enough to say that we have gotten them to that level and were ready for this. All summer we talked about how this is no easy league. We believe we’ve prepared them enough to make them ready for this.”
Harrell, 17, made a point of saying the team would not be emotionally shackled by the ideal that they had to get the Lancers back for smacking the Eagles around in 2014.
“Last year was last year,” he said. “Last year our team wasn’t a family like it is this year. We’re together. This year, if we put our minds to it, practice hard this week, we can win this game.
“Playing with a bunch of younger guys, [the seniors] have to be the leaders to them. When I was a sophomore I got told what to do and listen to what they said. Now that I’m a senior, I know I have to be that leader [for this team].”
Friday figures to be a rugged, rousing affair. Bishop Amat may have an edge in strength while Chaminade is known for its overall speed and rapid tempo of play. A loss for either team will make it much harder to qualify for the 2015 playoffs. Several teams could wind up with similar records and be like trying to untangle a spider’s web when the regular season ends on Nov. 6.
That can produce a smothering level of self-imposed pressure for a young team. Which is why, said Brock, 17, the most important thing the young players need to do this week is be relaxed as well as focused.
“What needs to happen this game (and the rest of the schedule) is having fun,” Brock said. “Because if you’re not having fun there’s no point in playing the game.
“I’m pretty sure we’ve all grasped that concept. And I believe that’s what we’ll take into the game: have fun, relax and execute. We shouldn’t have that much pressure. Because football is a fun sport. Every game is like Christmas. There’s no pressure for Christmas, but you’re excited for it.”