Like everything else that’s happened for Grant High football this season, the team’s bye week has come at a perfect time.
The undefeated Lancers (8-0, 4-0), are getting a needed break from the 2016 regular season, and will have two weeks to prepare for their most important game — a showdown at home with Chavez High for the East Valley League championship on Oct. 28. Both teams are unbeaten in league play, and the Eagles’ only loss this season was to Reseda back on Sept. 1.
What Grant is doing this season under first year Coach Franco Stasilli is not necessarily historic, but it is stunning. The Lancers have one of the smallest rosters in the City Section’s Division II. There are 26 players listed but usually only 19-20 players suit up for each game.
Stasilli — who played football at Grant, graduated from here in 2005, and was coaching eight-man football at Fulton College Prep before taking the job — said he was prepared for playing with minuscule numbers this year in part because of the changes he would be demanding in the program’s approach to the game — starting with discipline.
“I knew I was getting some talent,” Stasilli said. “I also knew I was getting a lot of undisciplined kids. I saw it on film, and then I experienced it right away — I could tell. I knew there was numbers issue as well. That was expected. The first week I was here we had 60 guys out there. Bu I anticipated a lot of them falling off because of what I expected them to do. They’d come out, but they don’t last.”
Those who remained on the team not only accepted the coaching methods of Stasilli and his staff, they embraced them. In doing so, Grant has transformed from being a hand with separate fingers into a tight fist that has been delivering winning blows week in and week out.
“The first week we suited up 19 kids. It’s never topped 21,” Stasilli said. “We use that as our motivation. That’s our driving force. Every pregame that gets us fired up. We continue to go on about how we only have 19-20 guys, and nobody expects anything from us. It’s tough, though. In the games I’ve got to be smart with timeouts, and everybody’s got to play.”
Offensive and defensive lineman Jose Portillo, a senior, said the players now consider their small roster a badge of honor.
“I knew the coaching would be different. I also felt a lot of people would leave because it was a new coach,” said Portillo, 17. “But throughout the whole summer, the people who stayed and worked hard…the whole program did change. Although we’re low in numbers, the reason we are the way we are is from all the training we’ve done from the spring to the summer to now.
“I believe in the way the team is run — our schedule, the way we practice, the way everything is set up for us, the way we work everyday. And the attitude of people. A lot of attitudes have changed under Stasilli. He’s vocal, but only to make us better. It’s never to make us feel bad or belittle us.”
Wide receiver and defensive back Eric Gaona, 17, a senior, said he was not entirely surprised by what Grant has done so far.
“At the beginning of the season we thought we could be a great team because of all the hard work we’d put in, day in and day out,” Goana said. “We had a high expectation, but we didn’t know if it would go through. But the coaches believed in us.”
He admits the small roster at times can be frustrating. “But like one of our coaches says, football is not for everybody.”
Quarterback Cameron Lee is the director of the Lancers’ read-option offense. He has thrown for 1,673 yards and 25 touchdowns (against four interceptions) and rushed for 493 yards and scored six touchdowns. Stasilli said he is one of the smartest prep quarterbacks he’s been around.
“He’s very gifted,” the coach said. “He comprehends the plays, goes through all of his progressions, and in the read-option he makes great reads. And, obviously, he’s gifted with a great arm and is mobile. But what separates him from other quarterbacks I’ve dealt with is how smart he is. In ‘football smarts’ he’s off the charts.”
Lee, 17, a senior, is happy to be healthy. A dislocated right elbow restricted him to primarily playing wide receiver last year, but now he is showcasing all his talents at the game’s most visible position.
The most important improvement he’s made, according to Lee, is in learning to be be a leader.
“I try to handle it as best I can,” he said. “I’m always reminded by my teammates — my brothers — to keep myself in check and be humble so I can lead us to a victory. It’s been a work in progress for me, as far as my attitude. I try to keep progressing in how I treat my teammates, and how I act on the field if something goes wrong.”
Richard Rios, 17, a senior, is another valuable member. As a running back he leads the team with 517 rushing yards and scored six touchdowns (one as a receiver). As a linebacker he leads the team in tackles with 40, including three quarterback sacks.
“Richard’s come a long way, especially in his attitude,” Stasilli said. “He’s one of the leaders of the team now. He’s great on both sides of the ball — an outstanding blitzer and a bruiser of a running back.”
Rios said he still feels the loss of his father, Robert, who passed away in 2014. That has been one of the many motivations for his efforts this season.
“I want to graduate, go to college, keep playing football,” Rios said.
An undefeated regular season would be a memorable accomplishment for Grant. But Stasilli said the coaches and players have very specific goals.
“Our first goal is winning the league, and we haven’t accomplished that yet,” Stasilli said. “That’s still our main focus and it’s right in front of us. Our next focus would be to succeed in the playoffs. That’s gonna be a challenge. But we want to succeed in the playoffs, at least advance to the second or third round.”
The last time Grant advanced past the City Division II playoff’s first round was 2013, when it lost to Granada Hills in the quarterfinals.
That season the Lancers listed 61 players on the roster.
Last season Grant lost a first round home game to Cleveland.
Yet another motivation for 2016.
“Winning league is the first goal. But if we can win league, but then get bounced in the first round again, it would feel like a failure,” Stasilli said.
“That’s our ultimate goal, what we do in the playoffs. And that’s what we keep bringing up. Yes we’re 8-0. But we have bigger goals ahead of us.”