It seemed like an innocent question for Rodrigo Nunez.
Last year the Chavez High football coach guided his team to its best record ever, winning 10 of 13 games, finishing second in the East Valley League to Grant, and reaching the City Section Division III playoff semifinals before losing to eventual champion Franklin High of Los Angeles.
The success got Chavez moved up into Division II this season, and created a higher profile for the football program.
How did it feel to have such a breakthrough year?
“I wouldn’t call it a ‘breakthrough.’ I think it was expected more than anything,” Nunez said. “We’d been working at it ever since I took over the program (four years ago). Not that we weren’t hopeful every year, but it was expected.
“We were young, so that would be the surprising part of last year.”
And last year, Nunez said, is exactly that — last year. The head coach and his staff have been doing their best to insure there are no lingering hangovers regarding the team’s performance. He doesn’t want this be known as the team’s best performance for years and years to come.
“We turn the page after every game win, lose or draw. We don’t talk about it, other than to fix our mistakes on Saturday. We meet, elaborate on what was successful, and that’s it. Monday is a new day, new game and new opponent.”
Nunez, both confident and direct, understands that the Cesar Chavez Learning Academies — which opened in 2007 — is not a typical, traditional high school, not with four different campuses in one location. Its football program doesn’t yet have the historical legacy of San Fernando High or Sylmar High — or even Arleta High, which also won a City title like the previously mentioned schools.
Everything Nunez does, from shaping Chavez’s offensive philosophy into that of being a running team in an era now defined by passing, to having to concentrate practices and training into the two-plus hours available after all the academic requirements have been met, goes against the traditional grain and current grain of high school football. But Nunez points out that Chavez has to think differently to stand out.
“We have our own mentality. And the kids feed into that,” the coach said.
They certainly did last year. And the players say they are eager to continue the level of excellence they reached in 2016.
“It was our best year so far,” said cornerback Jose Torres, 17, a senior. “What was different was the confidence we had in our team. It was young; we have more seniors this year. And we did come up short, but we went farther than any other team here so far. We’re looking to be even better this time.”
“Last year was important for us,” added running back Joseph Tapia, 17, a senior. “It was a stepping stone for Chavez to start winning. It created a new atmosphere, let everyone around us know that we can win like anyone else in our league.
“We’re just trying to keep it going — not just for this year but for years to come. Building camaraderie can be hard because this is not a generic school where we see each other all the time, and hang out during class and at lunch. We have to do our bonding outside of school or at practice. But we try to bond as much as we can. I know that last year, our group was connected in a very good sense compared to prior seasons. And it can be better.”
Offensively the Eagles will have three of their five starting offensive linemen — Leo Escobar, Joel Miranda and David Parral — back to build around. Isreal Rivera, who had the best stats of all the returning running backs (657 yards, nine touchdowns) anchors the ground game. The starting quarterback is a question that may take all summer to answer. Nunez said their two leading candidates are Julio Velasquez, a senior who played tight end last year, and Adam Davenport, a junior who spent most of the 2016 season playing linebacker on the junior varsity.
“Velasquez might have an edge because he knows the system better. But right now it’s up in the air,” Nunez said.
The defense lost two integral parts to graduation. Nose guard Diego Sanchez recorded an astonishing total of 29 quarterback sacks despite constant double teams — “He was so fast,” Nunez said with admiration, “we didn’t fluff up his numbers” — and inside linebacker Roger Juarez, who led the team in tackles with 97.
And, at least for now, Chavez may not be as physical on defense as they were in 2016. Not that the Eagles were behemoths to begin with. But Nunez frets slightly about his team, particularly the starting defensive line, being able to hold up through a schedule that goes for 10 consecutive weeks. The “bye” would come the week before the playoffs are scheduled to start.
“Staying healthy is the key,” Nunez said, when asked how to build on last year’s success.
That would be just another obstacle Chavez would have to overcome. But the players are enjoying the new level of respect the football program has reached, and don’t want to see it just evaporate
“We have to have discipline. keep our heads up, and keep winning,” said wide receiver Gabriel Torres, 18, a senior. “And have the same mentality as last year — but even better. But I’m seeing it already.”