Sierra Canyon High has done such a marvelous job of putting together its football program that you have to remind yourself that, as a program, it’s not that old.
From their beginnings in eight-man football in 2007, the Trailblazers have grown into a small school (high school population: 400) power that can boast of winning three Southern Section championships, two CIF state bowl games, and recording two perfect seasons since 2011.
The second perfect season was last year: 16-0, capped by winning the Southern Section’s Division IV championship, and the CIF State Football Championship Division 2A Bowl game in Sacramento.
That was after being jumped six divisions, from Division X to Division IV, by Southern Section officials before the season started. And Sierra Canyon has been moved up again in 2017 to Division III, and has a schedule that includes games against strong teams the Trailblazers never faced before like Westlake High of Westlake Village, and Calabasas High.
Coach Jon Ellinghouse, who’s overseen and developed the football program from its infancy, can certainly take pride in what Sierra Canyon has accomplished. But he is more interested in the team’s — and the program’s — continued development, notoriety and expansion.
“I’ve been lucky to be [coaching] for almost two decades. So I’ve gotten used to it,” Ellinghouse said. “I remember when I was a younger coach, I would think ‘how are we ever going to replace these kids’ (after a championship season). You learn it’s cyclical. There are some [new] kids who are hungry and you’ve got to make it their turn.
“The nice thing about last year is our program achieved the best goal we’ve ever achieved. But it’s also now in the best position for the future. We finally had a full JV team. We have a core of young, talented players … We’ve gotten to where we can be a quality program year in and year out. We’ve some kids who I think are going to very good football players, and we have a great young freshmen class. So the program is in good shape to sustain that.”
One of Sierra Canyon’s critical questions is who would or can replace graduating senior Bobby Cole at running back. Cole had an amazing 2016 season, amassing 2,380 yards and 34 touchdowns as the team’s featured offensive player in a system that averaged 394.4 yards and 36.1 points per game.
“We’re not going to ask anybody to be ‘Bobby Cole’ because that would be an unfair expectation and reality,” Ellinghouse said.
But 17 players had at least one rushing attempt for Sierra Canyon last season and Ellinghouse has a plethora of candidates to consider, including Michael Myrick, Corey Jones, Trevor Howarth and Ronald Kamulali.
“We’re having this talk before we really get into camp yet; that’s when you figure out who is your running back because it’s hard to do in passing leagues and without pads on,” Ellinghouse said.
“Right now we have a lot of talented kids who are used to carrying the football around here. It’s more like a four- or five-headed monster right now. We’re going to work on different skill sets, different abilities and alter our offense a bit.”
The quarterback position is also potentially a tight battle.
The Trailblazers’ 2016 season could have gone sideways had it not been for the excellent play of quarterback Johnathan Hawkins, then a sophomore, who stepped in when senior starter Niko Harris was shelved for much of the season with a knee injury.
Hawkins would complete 100 of 185 passes for 1,856 yards and 21 touchdowns (against five interceptions) in 12 games and went 11-0 as a starter.
“When he got here he didn’t know a coverage from a hole in the wall,” Ellinghouse said of Hawkins. “There’s no doubt he’s a better quarterback than he was from last year. He’s seeing the field differently, thinking about what’s gonna happen before it happens. Last year he was just a sophomore kid just trying to get the ball out of his hand and get it to a good athlete. He now has the ability to process the field, process the information I’ve taught him, and be more of a guy to go out there and help us win.”
But there are no guarantees yet of Hawkins being the starter. The level of roster depth at Sierra Canyon is such that Hawkins is currently getting a strong push for playing time from Mason Quandt, a senior, who has also attended St. Bonaventure in Ventura and Chaminade.
For the first time, though, Sierra Canyon may be known more for defense than offense. Ellinghouse notes that nine of last year’s 11 starters return, and many are still underclassmen.
“We have a kid named J.D. Hernandez who got every rep as a freshman and will be a guy we are leaning on at middle linebacker,” Ellinghouse said. “Howarth was our leading tackler. Myrick was big-time as a strong safety. And … J.J. Hernandez is a kid I probably should have mentioned first. He’s a stud wide receiver and stud strong safety, the heart and soul of our team as a junior.
“We’re still young, but young and talented and also young and experienced. I had some freshmen and sophomores who started every game last year. Last year they were trying to prove themselves and now they’re the ‘grizzled veterans.’ But a lot of them are juniors, which is a cool feeling.”
Both J.J. Hernandez and Myrick are enjoying the championship rings they earned from last season’s title run. But both have moved on from last season.
“Right now it’s about teaching the younger kids, making sure they know what they’re doing,” J.J. Hernandez said. “Getting our team prepared in the weight room and on the field, making sure we know all the plays. And hoping we go out with a bang, like last year.”
“We have to forget about [last year]. We’re not the same team as last year,” Myrick said. “We have to find our identity as a new team, focus on each game, not focus on last year.”
But they also recognize that as Sierra Canyon keeps getting better, and the divisional and schedule challenges become tougher, the Trailblazers have an opportunity to keep creating an indelible football destiny.
“We’ve always been underrated,” J.J. Hernandez said. “It feels great to move up and play the people we’re supposed to play since the beginning.”