The breakthrough the Chavez High football program has been working toward for the past five years became official Saturday, Nov. 5, when the City Section Division III playoff bracket was announced.
The Eagles didn’t just qualify for the playoffs, something they previously did in 2013, 2014 and last year. This time they are seeded fourth. Which means they will not only host a first round game, but also a quarterfinal game should they advance. And they have the look of a contender in what could be the most competitive playoff division in City football.
So its understandable if Chavez already felt satisfied with its 8-2 overall record (and first ever winning season), a second place finish in the East Valley League and — after enjoying their bye week — having a home playoff game against Huntington Park Marquez tonight, Nov. 10.
Except that Rodrigo Nunez, their head coach, won’t stand for that kind of attitude.
Now in his fourth season, Nunez has also worked hard in building a staff and molding a program that won’t just be a team to fill out a bracket, but a team that could play for a championship.
He believes 2016 might be the year it happens.
“I think our record is indicative of the hard work we’ve done during the season, and all the hard work of the spring and summer,” Nunez said. “It’s also a combination of having the athletes knowing the system, and the athletes we’ve acquired.
“If there’s one thing we stressed during the bye week — really all season — it’s ‘finish what you start’ and not lose sight of the goal. For us, that would be a championship.”
There are plenty of private and public schools with high academic standards that are competitive in athletics. The Cesar Chavez Learning Academies — which opened in 2011 and has four independent campuses in science, arts and theater, social justice humanitas, and technology — has won a City championship in softball has reached two City finals in baseball.
Football hadn’t reached those levels of respect — until now.
“I think we’re starting something for the students who come after us,” said lineman Angel Pelayo, 18, a senior in the technology academy. “And I think we creating history. It’s the first time we’ve had a home playoff game.
“Because we all come from different academies, this shows that if we work together, we can come together and achieve the common goal we all have.”
Running back Luis Velasquez, 17, a senior in social justice humanitas, said it was “a humbling experience” coming to school, and have students and faculty truly interested in the team.
“I’ve noticed more people are attending the games. It helps us feel more people are caring about the hard work we’ve been putting in. It feels like people believe in us now,” Velasquez said.
“I believe it’s fitting. Our coach told us from the beginning of the summer we had the talent to make a run. We believe in ourselves, the fans started to show up, and it’s been fun.”
Chavez’s lone league loss was to undefeated East Valley champion Grant. Their other defeat was to Reseda, back on Sept. 1.
In both losses, the Eagles scored only two touchdowns and gave up 39 points.
“Both Reseda and Grant shut down our running game,” Nunez said, while adding “we still had 10 takeaways on defense” in the two games.
Offensively, the Eagles depend on the speedy Velasquez, who has rushed for 977 yards and nine touchdowns despite missing three games, and Israel Rivera, a junior who has 582 yards and eight touchdowns.
But there are other backs who can churn the turf, like fullbacks Roger Juarez and Joseph Felix-Tapia.
“I’ve seen this team grow,” said Juarez, 18, a senior in the social justice humanitas and a transfer from Monroe High who played on the Vikings 2014 team that reached the Division III championship game against Los Angeles High.
“I really think we have a chance to get past the first round. I’m telling them about making it to the final. I wish [Monroe] could have won; but having been there is driving me to make it to the final again,” he said.
Felix-Tapia, 16, a junior with a 4.4 GPA in the science academy — “I want to work on rockets,” he said a bit sheepishly — wants to help send the seniors out with a positive experience.
“As a ninth and 10th grader I experienced watching the seniors go out with losses in the first round,” Felix-Tapia said. “I just hope we can at least get past the first round. I’ve seen our potential in the past, but we haven’t been able to explode. I know what we’re capable of.”
Marquez (5-5), seeded 13th, finished third in the Central League behind Hollywood and Belmont. But that doesn’t mean Nunez believes they have a first round “gimme.”
“I think it is a very good matchup for us,” the coach said. “They are physical and look tough at point of attack. This will be a good first game for us.”
And Nunez, and his team, are counting on more than one game.