The first two plays against Taft High were two prime examples of how the San Fernando High Tigers want to play football this season.
Although it won the toss, San Fernando elected to kick off. Taft return man Marvin Stewart was angling toward his own sideline but didn’t see Tigers defender Darrius Nash — who cut behind three teammates and was running across the field — bearing down on him. Nash belted Stewart with a clean shot that knocked Stewart off his feet and the ball out of his hands for a fumble that was recovered by San Fernando.
On the Tigers’ first play from scrimmage, quarterback Joshua Garcia turned to his left and fired a pass to Lorenzo Bernardi, who then ran practically untouched down the San Fernando sideline for a 45-yard touchdown.
The game still had 46 minutes to go and Taft — which wound up on the wrong side of a 52-7 score — was, for the the most part, already beaten.
Speed. Demoralizing hits. Playing all 48 minutes with no letup.
“Setting a tone,” said Tigers Coach Robert Garcia.
“The first thing I did in the locker room before the game was ‘set a tone.’ And it starts with the first play, the kickoff return. And I think that first play [by Nash], kind of ruined their momentum and set a fire under our defense.”
Or as Nash put it afterward, “once you get a hit like that, the whole team feeds off of it and you feel you can’t be stopped after that.”
San Fernando football has been a bit quiet the past couple of years following consecutive City Section Division II championships in 2012 and 2013.
But it’s looking as if the Tigers (2-0) — now in Division I — who host University High of Los Angeles on Friday, Sept. 9 are not going to be satisfied with simply being a fair-to-middling team. Especially not after opening the season with two wins that were impressive on the scoreboard, and in the way San Fernando dominated Cleveland and Taft.
“We’re playing with pride again, and with dedication to the program,” Garcia said. “After the last championship in 2013, I think a lot of the kids let the winning get to their heads and not put the work in that those championship teams did.
“So I had to plant the seed again. And you know what? These guys have worked very hard and pushed each other to get to where we’re at.”
Two games, of course, don’t make a season. But the Tigers, after giving up only one touchdown in eight quarters and outscoring the Cavaliers and Toreadors by a combined total of 76-7, have everyone’s attention.
Alex Gonzalez, for one, hopes they do because “we’re tired of losing,” the linebacker said.
Gonzalez, 17, a senior did not play last season while recovering from surgery for a torn ACL in his left knee. But he indicated that performance and attitudes the past two years were not the kind that helped the Tigers win those back-to-back championships.
But the first two lopsided victories are not going to blow up egos like hot-air balloons.
“We’ll still pretend we’re 0-0,” Gonzalez said.” We want to start every game like we’ve been doing. The pride was missing. But I think we’ve got it back. We’re more together, more smarter this year as a team.”
Nash, 16, a senior, was at Crenshaw High in Los Angeles last year. He’s added another level of toughness and athleticism. Crenshaw reached the City Division I championship game against eventual winner Narbonne of Harbor City. But Nash said the Tigers didn’t need any outside motivation from him.
“It’s no difference [from Crenshaw],” Nash said. “Everybody works hard, works the same. They know you have to win every game. And you have to have the mindset you want to win a championship.”
Another point of emphasis for the Tigers was participating in more than just one sport. Garcia didn’t want them only thinking of preparing for football.
“A lot of these guys were on the track team,” he said. “Other guys wrestled. I’m pushing them to not just be football players. And I’m not giving them a choice; I’m forcing them to do it. The big guys, the lineman and linebackers can concentrate in the weight room. But if it’s the ‘skill’ guys, they better play another sport or run track.”
The results are evident.
There is speed at wide receiver with Bernardi, Gabriel Rodriguez, Anthony Davila and Nash who have combined for 351 yards and four touchdowns. Speed at running back with diminutive (5-feet 5-inches tall) yet plucky running back Michael Alejandro, who’s averaged eight yards a carry.
They — along with San Fernando’s tough yet mobile offensive line — have made Garcia’s job easy so far. The challenge has been getting the ball to everyone enough to keep them happy and involved.
“I’m trying to spread [the ball] around as much as I can,” said Garcia, 16, a junior. “With Gabriel being fast, Lorenzo running great routes, Davila being athletic and Darrius being a playmaker, I just throw the ball and let them get it. They do the rest.”
University (1-0) comes in after beating Contreras of Los Angeles in its season opener on Sept. 1. The Wildcats have been struggling longer than the Tigers; the last time University had a better than .500 record was 2007, when it reached the City Division II championship game. The Wildcats — still in Division II — are also hungry for a playoff run.
It will be interesting to see who sets the tone this week.