It is the first official day of practice for the 2016 Sierra Canyon football team, and no one is being spared the 100-plus degree heat from the afternoon Valley sun. The players — all in shorts and most of them shirtless — have finished their weight room sessions and are now going through various drills and a series of plays to get them familiar or reacquainted with the Trailblazers way of doing things.
No one is grumbling about the heat or pace of practice (which includes plenty of water breaks), even out of earshot of head Coach Jon Ellinghouse or his staff. Instead, there seems to be an eagerness, almost, to get the 2016 prep football year going.
It may have something to do with the continued high level of success Sierra Canyon has enjoyed the past few years. Or it could be the way the 2015 season ended in such disheartening fashion. Probably a bit of both.
Last season was a tremendous one, by any accord. Sierra Canyon won its first 14 games, including the Southern Section’s Mid-Valley Division championship, and qualified for the CIF state Open Division (Small Schools) playoff. But in the regional game against San Marino, the Trailblazers let a 21-point fourth quarter lead completely dissolve. San Marino scored 22 points in that fourth quarter to snatch the victory away, 35-34.
The loss is still weighing on the minds of some returning players.
“I haven’t really gotten over it,” said standout two-way lineman Kanan Ray, a senior. “Time has kind of healed it a little, [but] it’s on the screen saver of my phone. Every time I look at my phone I see that score. I took a picture of the scoreboard afterward. I made sure to get a picture of that so I’d have it for motivation every day.”
“It’s something that’s gonna be burning inside all of us awhile,” added running back Bobby Cole, a senior. “It’s not gonna cool down until we get to the [state game]. That’s definitely the goal for the season. That and play ‘SC’ football every game.”
Ellinghouse — who has won two Southern Section championships and a state Division IV title at Sierra Canyon since 2011 — said his attention is now on the upcoming season. But the memory of that Dec.12 defeat has not totally evaporated.
“Obviously the pain of it was definitely there; I’d be a fool to deny that,” Ellinghouse said. “At the same time, I guess I’ve been doing this long enough to where I’ve had some awesome victories. The week before we were hoisting a trophy.
“(The loss) was nothing I’d ever experienced as far as the meltdown we had. But it fuels you. I can’t tell you I’ve been sitting here everyday, thinking about it. We moved on quite a while ago. This is a new team, and we’re excited about the prospects for this group. It’s one of those [losses where], when I’m 70-years-old I’ll be able to tell you exactly what happened. I’ll remember it; it’ll burn inside of me of awhile. But at the same time, I have a new team here.”
A new team with some key returning talent. The 6-5, 270-pound Ray — who has committed to UCLA — anchors the offensive and defensive lines. Cole has a scholarship offer from Northern Colorado University, and will get more offers if he is anywhere close to last season’s rushing totals of 2,468 yards and 29 touchdowns. And don’t forget about returning quarterback Niko Harris, a senior who has committed to UC Davis. Harris passed for 3,260 yards and 47 touchdowns last season, while throwing only six interceptions.
The Trailblazers will be young in other places, particularly at linebacker and wide receiver. But Harris does not think it will take the next group of starters — and the team as a whole — long to be fully acclimated.
“Our coaches do a great job of integrating and teaching our players to get up to speed and into our program,” Harris said. “I think it’s going to be good for us. With the amount of players that we have, there’s gonna be more rest for the players who go both ways. And with the younger players coming, it’s going to be great for our Sierra Canyon program.”
“When we were juniors and sophomores, I feel we relied on athletes more,” Cole said. “This year — and I’m not saying we don’t have athletes because we definitely do — we plan on being more of a machine out there, more physically and technically sound. Being a very fundamental team when we step out on the field.”
Ellinghouse emphasizes that this group, which should comprise the largest roster he’s ever had at Sierra Canyon by the time the season opens on August 19, “has not done anything yet.” But he doesn’t deny that he feels the 2016 Trailblazers could be very good again, especially with Harris and Cole heading up an explosive offense.
“I’ve been doing this long enough to know that when you have a good guy back there at quarterback it tends to lead to good things,” the coach said. “And I’m a huge believer in the kid we have running the QB. We’ve depended on Niko for two years, so there’s nothing different than has been in the past. We’re not going to put any more or less on him.
“And Bobby’s a heck of a tailback. When he runs the ball, he runs with bad intentions. He’s the type of guy that, if you need three yards most times you’ll get it. I’m a big fan of Bobby’s. If he can do this year what he did last year, we’ll be alright.”
It’s why what talk you hear around practice this day is about “finishing,” not, stumbling in critical moments of do-or-die games and not falling short again. Certainly the seniors like Cole, Harris and Ray feel such urgency because this is their last opportunity to win it all. But it is also about maintaining a standard of excellence this group of seniors has been part of in their high school careers.
“That’s our biggest thing, to finish and focus,” Harris said. “That’s what we say in the weight room and on the field — ‘to finish.’”
Ray also reminds his visitor of the team mantra for 2016.
The mentality this year is to finish. We’re trying to ‘finish,’ unlike last year,” he said. “I know we have a lot of young guys, and there’ll be some growing pains. But I want us to be better than we’ve ever been. I want us rolling when August comes around.”