When the Southern Section’s Mission League reinvented itself in 2014, from one at a solid Division II level to a more bulked up Division I level, Chaminade was at first overwhelmed.
There was some admitted hangover from the 2013 season when the Eagles went 14-2, and not only won the league but also section and state titles. They might have become overconfident from going 5-0 in their nonleague schedule then winning their first league game against Loyola of Los Angeles. But then they lost to Alemany and became trapped in a vortex from which they could not escape. Chaminade wound up 1-5 in league play in 2014, finishing sixth.
Maybe the continuing players needed a season being in a Division I league to fully understand what facing sound, solid football teams every week truly entails.
Some of all of the above is true, according to linebacker Kyle Bilchik, who was a sophomore on the 2014 team.
“The Mission League has always been tough and it was made much tougher,” said Bilchik, 18, now a senior and the team leader in tackles with 53. “It definitely took that year of a beating [to adjust]. Coming out of a state championship, we definitely had a big head going into Division I. And it was a rough adjustment period for that year.”
Teammate and free safety Jahlil Pinkett, who mostly watched that season after transferring from El Camino Real as a second semester freshman, concurs.
“We came into the season thinking we were top dogs, and got hit hard (by Alemany),” said Pinkett, 17, a senior. “That loss was a shock. And we didn’t really recover.”
But the Eagles had a better appreciation for what they were up against. Last year they were 4-2 in league — 7-4 overall — finished tied for third.
“We had a lot of returning guys with wisdom on defense,” Bilchik said. “We weren’t the biggest, the fastest or the strongest. But … we bonded: we worked hard, stayed after hours, knew we were gonna be the underdog and really got after it coming off that bad season.”
“Everybody worked harder, now that we knew what it was like to be on the bottom,” added Pinkett. “We all had that same attitude.”
Since the season opening loss to Oaks Christian of Westlake in a spectacular 65-55 shootout — “another lesson,” Bilchik said — the Eagles have won three straight, the most recent being the 28-20 road victory against Bakersfield on Sept. 16.
Chaminade, which opens Mission League play on Friday, Sept. 23, against defending champion Serra of Gardena, is still considered a young team.
Coach Ed Croson has only four seniors who start. But he has one of the best collections of juniors in the Southland, featuring quarterback Brevin White (798 passing yards, eight touchdowns) and running back T.J. Pledger (559 rushing yards, three touchdowns) on offense, and linebacker James Thomas (31 tackles) on defense.
Croson said he is enjoying the group’s development.
“For a lot of these kids, this is it for them,” Croson said. “You’re a high school football player, and it might be the only time in your life where you’re some little kid’s hero. It might be the one time in your life you do something that’s televised, and you’re kind of in the public’s eye. So we’ve always tried to put our kids in big games, because I think you go through this one time. And I think we’ve attracted kids that want to play at that level.
“The [new configuration of the] Mission League wasn’t necessarily our idea. We and Serra are the smallest schools. We’re also the most academic. So this is not necessarily a perfect fit for us. But we have a junior class that is really good … how good is still too early to tell. We’ll know a lot more 3-4 more games into it; we’ll have a lot better idea if they are a year ahead of schedule. We know they’re going to be really good some day; we’re just not sure what day that is.”
The Cavaliers are off to a slow start at 1-3. But that’s deceiving, Croson said.
“They’re a really good team,” he said. “They haven’t lost to anybody outside the nation’s top 100. And there’s 15,000 schools in the county. So that’s the top one percent. They haven’t lost outside of the top one percent. Hopefully we can change that.”
Of course, the beauty (or curse) of the Mission League is that any of the teams besides Chaminade — Alemany, Bishop Amat of La Puente, Crespi, Loyola, Notre Dame or Serra — could wind up league champion. And only three of the seven teams are guaranteed a playoff berth.
The Eagles now realize that no matter how good they are — or think they are — every league game is a tough game.
“We know there is no easy week,” Bilchik said. “If you take any team lightly in the Mission League, you could be disappointed.”
It starts against Serra.
“It’s gonna be a big game,” Pinkett said. “We’re gonna play our football and they’re gonna play their football. We’ll do our best to stop them and they will do their best to stop us. Hopefully we come out on top.”