Before we consider the future of Sylmar High football as it approaches the 2016 season, we must give one last appreciative nod to its recent past.
The glory and the talent that was quarterback Clarence Williams, Jr., not only defined the Spartan passing game the past four years, but reminded the jaded among us of the joy in watching a bundle of potential metamorphose into a gifted performer and unquestioned leader.
In his four years at Sylmar (according to the statistics posted by maxpreps.com), Williams passed for a seemingly modest career total of nearly 7,700 yards. What’s impressive besides his 94 touchdown passes (against 15 interceptions) is the fact that Williams never attempted as many as 200 passes in season, and his throwing efficiency (379 for 616, 62 percent) was built primarily on long balls downfield.
With him, Sylmar won consecutive Valley Mission League titles (including last year) and reached the City Section Division II championship game in 2014. The Spartans were moved into Division I in 2015, and reached the quarterfinal round of the playoffs.
What will Coach Robert Brazil remember most about Williams, who is now attending the College of the Canyons?
“His leadership,” Brazil said. “It’s going to be hard to replace. He knew the offense inside and out. But there was also his mental toughness. He didn’t miss a game in four years. He never got hurt, never came out. And he took some good shots. He ran the option, too. And he was just an all-around good kid.”
Williams is not the only key player the Spartans, who were 9-3 last year, must replace. Running back Marcus Gandy (1,330 yards 12 touchdowns) and receivers Malik Martin, Andrew Simpson and Devon Parks — who combined for 58 receptions, 1,554 yards and 11 touchdowns — are among the 11 departing seniors who saw the bulk of playing time for Sylmar.
“We’ll be young as far as experience,” Brazil said. “A lot of the guys on the team who are playing were on the team last year — they just had seniors in front of them who were playing. We have to replace about eight seniors who had been playing on varsity since the ninth or 10th grade. That’s a big key for us.”
The strength of the team entering the 2016 season will be the offensive and defensive lines, Brazil said. The leader of this group is senior Edward Nobles, who as a defensive tackle had 82 tackles, including 11 sacks, and one interception.
Nobles, 18, considered that an “okay” season.
“I noticed I was in the backfield a lot last year, and I wasn’t able to finish 100 percent of the time,” Nobles said. “I look at the film and it makes me cringe. I should’ve had [a larger] amount of stats. It should’ve been way better, and it hurts. But this year I’m working on that a lot. The only thing to do is get better from here on out.”
And while the Spartans have to replace many of the skill starters, Nobles warns opponents against expecting Sylmar to just hand over the league crown without a battle.
“I expect 100 percent to win league,” he said. “Because I look at us, and I know we have a lot of talent. There’s a lot of heart there, too. Seeing that I feel we can put a championship team together.”
Fellow lineman Francisco Navarro, 17 , a senior, agrees.
“I’d like to show [teams] we can be at the top level,” Navarro said. “There’s a reason we’re still in D-I. And I believe that we can go farther than the second round. I believe that.”
If the linemen are the team’s strength — and “strength” is the optimum term since, as Navarro notes, “everyone of us benches and squats 300-pounds or more” — they must also be the stabilizing core until the new batch of skill players find their rhythm and confidence.
Brazil has named Angel Vizcarra, a senior, as the starting quarterback. “He’s coming up from the JV. But, all spring he just came in and took over the position. He won the job,” Brazil said.
“It’s his first time playing with the varsity, but the team has rallied around him. We did pretty good in our passing leagues, we threw a lot. So he’s got some reps, some understanding.”
Erinn (cq) Jones, a junior who’s “quite elusive” according to Brazil, is the featured running back. And David Ruiz, who caught seven passes for an astonishing 290 yards in seven games as a junior, gives Vizcarra a legitimate receiving threat.
But, Brazil added, “everyone’s going to have to grow up, and grow immediately.”
The nonleague schedule that starts with Crespi on Aug. 26 and includes Oxnard, Palisades of Pacific and Taft, will force Sylmar to grow up quickly. And there are six other Mission Valley League teams who want to see their names on top of the standings.
But the Spartans say they are unafraid of challenges.
“I think we have surprised people these last couple of years, how we brought things together,” Brazil said. “Before (former coach) Chris (Richards) was here the program was down, but things have turned around.
“Our expectations are not that high this year. But we still consider ourselves one of the favorites to win the league title.”