The rolling waves of heat blasting through the Valley on Tuesday, June 20, have severely curtailed the kind of summer workout the Birmingham Community Charter High football team would normally be going through.
Coach Jim Rose was fine with that.
“We’re way ahead of where we were a year ago,” Rose said.
A year ago the Patriots — with much of the 2015 team and all of its skill players graduating — were stumbling about, trying to figure out themselves. Rose even started spring practice late, trying to find enough bodies who had played before or wanted to play now.
“A year ago I didn’t know who was playing where,” the coach said.
It ultimately led to Birmingham fielding one of its youngest, most inexperienced teams in recent memory. The 2016 season, a losing one, was definitely about growing pains with emphasis on the pain — and not just the physical toll.
“I could say I was disappointed…it’s not a good feeling when somebody doesn’t want it as bad as you do,” said Marcos Moran, a wide receiver and linebacker.
But the Patriots feel they can restore some swagger. The key skill players from last season like quarterback Jason Artiga, running back Shane Bennett, and Moran are back and experienced. Most of the defense, led by linebacker and leading tackler Giancarlo Tarifa, returns.
The Patriots say they were humbled by their rebuilding season, and are eager to re-establish their position as one of the elite teams in the West Valley League, as well as a contender in Division I of the City Section.
“It wasn’t like we went 0-10,” Rose said. “We finished second in league. But for us, that’s not good. We expect to win league. But last year was tough because [for many players, being on the varsity] was all new. Just the language we speak takes time to learn.”
After sharing or winning outright five consecutive West Valley League championships from 2011-2015, Birmingham was bumped from first place last year by El Camino Real. At the same time, the only Patriots’ loss in league was to the Conquistadors.
The Patriots problem was beating other teams besides West Valley League opponents. The only nonleague victory was a 31-21 win over Canoga Park, which was now a City Division II school. And Birmingham was shut out three times, none more painful than the 49-0 blasting given to the Patriots by San Pedro in the first round of the playoffs.
“Last year they kind of fell into that ‘we’re young’ trap with our nonleague schedule, which is never easy,” Rose said. “We had a lot of sophomores starting. It was a whole new experience for them. And with the playoff game last year, you could tell their immaturity. They just weren’t ready for Division I playoffs.”
Overall, the Patriots finished the season 5-6. But the players are approaching the 2017 season with a renewed zeal. They have spent hours in the school’s refurbished weight rooms. They have already participated in passing league gatherings at UCLA, Pierce College and Dorsey High of Los Angeles, and will go to another one in Thousand Oaks on Saturday, June 24, before entering their mandatory “dead” period.
They are taking the growing pains and frustrations of last season to heart.
“I’m glad for what we went through,” said Moran, 17, a senior. “I won’t regret that season. Because now we’re back and way stronger.
“I feel like we’ve all come from humble beginnings over here. Nobody’s ever really been a ‘star.’ We’re all rising and seeing how this works out together.”
Tarifia, 16, a junior, also appreciated the difficulties of playing in 2016.
“We learned from everything we did that was wrong,” he said. “Without doing something wrong, you’re not going to learn anything.”
The biggest thing he learned, Tarifia said, was that “things happen for a good reason sometimes. Even though it wasn’t a good season, good things came out of it.”
The main question mark at the moment for Birmingham is the quality of its linemen on offense and defense. There is blooming talent in sophomore Hendrix Lopez, and imposing size in senior Dean Khazanov, who checks in at 6-5 and 446 pounds.
Center Jesus Santisteban, 17, a senior, is the main returning starter. He understands he is expected to help shepherd the newer players into a smooth working unit by the season opener against Harvard-Westlake on Aug. 25.
“Oh yeah, (the coaches) look at me to help out the younger guys,” said Santisteban, who added he’s already “seen some things” in practice. “They believe in me. I have a job to do this summer and I think I can do it.”
Once the season starts “we should not be going out there making a lot of mistakes, just doing our job,” Santisteban said.
Once again the nonleague season — which, besides Harvard-Westlake, includes games with Notre Dame, La Salle of Pasadena, Westlake of Westlake Village and Agoura — will be challenging. And so will the West Valley League.
But this group of Patriots — who are getting a new, artificial field put in starting in July — feel more capable of facing those challenges.
“Being a year older, these guys kind of ‘own it’ a little more,” Rose said. “It’s not like ‘oh, we’re young.’ This team expects to win.”