This is Year Two of the reconstructing of the Alemany High football program, and — at least on the surface — there is still work to do.
The Warriors went 3-7 last year overall under first year Coach James Washington. Even worse, they were 0-5 at home. And they missed the Southern Section playoffs for a third straight year. They dealt with injuries, eligibility issues (causing them to forfeit the season opening win against Garfield High of Los Angeles), and the inherent difficulties of learning a new system under new management.
Washington said things would be different in 2017.
“I love the direction we’re going,” the coach said, while surveying a recent afternoon practice. “I love what my coaches are teaching. I’ve got a young quarterback that’s mobile. We’ve got veteran guys in the secondary. The catalyst [for the defense], linebacker Jime Deyoung, was first team all-league as a freshman. We got some transfers for the defensive line” — Alton Johnson and Kyle Finnick — “that turn a very young group into a veteran group. They will beef us up a little bit.”
That’s not the only reboot for Alemany this season.
There’s also Washington himself.
A high-profile college player at UCLA and a NFL Super Bowl champion with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s, James took the plunge into being a head coach after working as an analyst of high school and college games for Fox. He thought it was the perfect time. He thought he was ready, having a solid background and a deep level of experience in the sport.
He found out there were still things to learn.
“What I learned last year was that I knew nothing about high school football,” said Washington, with unexpected candor. “I thought I did. But it’s a different world.”
And it wasn’t simply just ‘X’s” and “O’s.” Being the head coach means a myriad of responsibilities and things to keep track of. Washington wasn’t afraid of the demands and the work. He just didn’t fully understand the depth of those demands and the work.
“It’s funny; I had all these mentors in college and the pros talking to me about being a head coach. This year all I talked to was a lot of high school coaches, trying to gain as much as I possibly could about the high school game,” Washington said.
“I have played this game at every level, but when you’re trying to develop young men it’s a whole different ballgame. And trying to keep them focused from one play to the next…because you don’t know what this 14-, 15- or 16-year-old (went through). Something may have happened in the classroom. He could be mad at his girlfriend. And it will mess him up on Friday night. Those are the type of things you have to take into consideration.”
He stops and gives a look.
“I’m not here to complain or use that as an excuse. I think I had the patience. I just think I had to understand…high school football. I broadcasted games for seven years, some of the top games. I know all the high school coaches. But it’s different standing on the sidelines, when you need to call a timeout or need to go for [a fourth down or touchdown]. It’s different.
“And I think we played well last year. But the close games [can come down to] one or two calls in a game. We lost three games last year (to JSerra Catholic of San Juan Capistrano, Oaks Christian of Westlake Village and Crespi) by a total of four points. That turns your whole season around.”
He still exudes confidence in his coaching staff and his core group of players. They’ve all had a season together. The players know the system better. Now they have to perform.
Finnick and Johnson aren’t the only transfers the Warriors are counting on. Two of them came last year — Tripp Mitchell and Elyjah Doyle.
Doyle, and his brother Joshua, came here from Valencia High and are starting defensive backs. Doyle, 17, a senior, has committed to Arizona State. But first he wants to return Alemany to the upper echelon of the Mission League.
His comfort level now with the program “is very high,” said Doyle, who had 59 total tackles — 34 solo — including one for a loss of yardage. “Last year was kind of a struggle, coming to a different defense. It was kind of hard to adjust. This year I’m more comfortable with it. And the team has a better comfort level. We should all come together.”
Mitchell, 17, a junior, had mostly played quarterback on the junior varsity at Calabasas High before coming to Alemany. He was supposed to be a backup for starter Miles Bryant last season but still got into five games, two as a starter. He’s expected to throw more than 45 passes (for 323 yards) this year, and produce more than three passing touchdowns.
“All of our coaches are getting us prepared really well. And the players around me help me out a ton, being in the right places and making plays,” Mitchell said.
“Last year I got some good experience so I know what to expect. The game has slowed down for me. And they’ve put in a lot of new plays, opened up the system more. We have some stud receivers on the outside to make plays for us. I’m excited for the season.”
Even though the Warriors play in one of the toughest football leagues in Southern California — the Mission League includes Crespi, Chaminade, Notre Dame, Bishop Amat of La Puente, Loyola of Los Angeles, and Serra of Gardena — the Alemany fan base is clamoring for postseason football. Maybe not all the way into December, but at least one or two more games in November.
So is Washington. But he’s still not going to remove things like character development or attention to classroom work from the agenda anymore than he would remove watching film or taping ankles.
Like he says, these are still kids and all that comes with it, be it dating issues, a crucial exam — or just trying to grow up.
It’s a lesson Washington won’t have to learn again.