Take a walk around and view a San Fernando football practice, and the feeling running through the players and coaches is palpable.
There’s a look of determination in these eyes of the Tigers coupled with a better understanding that you’d better take advantage of an opportunity when it presents itself because you don’t know how many times opportunity will be there.
These 2017 Cats know they’re good. But they were good in 2016, winning their first 10 games and the Valley Mission League championship, punctuated by beating neighborhood rival Sylmar for the league title.
That 11th game, however…losing that 11th game, a home playoff game to Garfield High of Los Angeles, evaporated all of the positivity that came before it.
The sour sting from the defeat stayed with Coach Robert Garcia long after the game.
“Losing in the first round, especially after going 10-0, is really tough,” Coach Garcia said. “For me, I’m telling the kids that while it’s great to go 10-0, [winning] usually counts [more] in the playoffs. The whole offseason it stuck on me. That [defeat] just messed up the whole season.
“To me, going 7-3 and winning a championship is better than going 10-0 and losing in the first round. Right now there are some little things to fix, and to get their mindsets right that we have to finish the whole season, not just win league and we’re happy.”
There are 17 starters returning for San Fernando’s 2017 season. Some, like quarterback Joshua Garcia (no relation) and receivers Anthony Davila and Gabriel Rodriguez, have been on the varsity four years. The roster has been reinforced with JV players who have gone 19-0-1 the past two seasons. And the Tigers have added a couple of key transfers from Crespi, twin brothers Trenton and Trevor Gill, to further enhance a strong defense.
The Tigers are guaranteed to make the playoffs because all 24 City Division I teams this season will make the playoffs: the top eight will form the section’s first ever Open Division and the remaining 16 teams will play for the Division I championship.
Coach Garcia said that, collectively, this might be the best squad he’s had in his six years here. That would be something when you consider San Fernando won back-to-back City Division II titles in Garcia’s first two years, and included an undefeated season (14-0) in 2013.
“I think overall, this is one of the best groups, position for position, that I’ve had,” the coach said. “It’s the deepest, depth-wise. It’s the fastest team I’ve had. Probably the most experienced. I think the sky’s the limit if they put it together.”
It’s one reason Coach Garcia beefed up the nonleague schedule, opening the season against Alemany and adding another Southern Section test in Notre Dame. It’s also why, he said, he and his staff are trying to push and motivate the team harder than in previous years.
“It’s the way we talk to them now,” he said. “It’s more inspiring for them to come out and practice even when it’s hot or cold. It’s the way we come at them. I believe they know they can be special.”
The players agreed that the loss to Garfield has haunted them in the same manner it did the coaches.
“I believe we could have gone way farther,” said Joshua Garcia, 16, a senior. “Of course it wasn’t the game we wanted it to be. [The loss] just lingered this whole offseason.”
“It was hard because we were right there” the whole game, noted Davila, 18, a senior. “But simple mistakes could cost us the game, and that’s what they did. Little things…if we didn’t do those little things we could have won.”
Rodriguez, 17, a senior, believes the team became too satisfied with winning league. The playoff loss “opened our eyes. You can’t take what we have for granted. We kinda came into the game thinking ‘our first playoff game and we’re home, 10-0, we got this.’ I guess we got too big-headed. We didn’t focus enough.
“You’re as good as you work. If you want to be a good player, work hard on the field during practice. I think, with all the kids coming back, we have definitely improved a lot. I can see it.”
Of course no one can predict the future. The Tigers still have to play the games.
But the feeling is strong at San Fernando that this team has a chance to be memorable for the right reasons. This could be a team that plays in December.
This team deserves a commitment from all the players not to cheat themselves out of what opportunities present themselves this season.
“Last year I felt like there were some things we as leaders could have done better to help our team,” Joshua Garcia said. “Last year we were just kind of breezing into the playoffs. This year, everything is going to be about business — no fooling around. Last year we took the playoffs lightly. Not this year. We’re gonna try and get a ring.”
“I think this season will be special,” added Davila. “Bottom line, we have everything. We just have to put it all together — coaches, players, everybody.”