Because of the way the humbling — and later bizarre — way the season ended, it’s easy to overlook how much the Grant Lancers overachieved last season.
The varsity primarily had 20 players. That’s all. Sometimes even fewer if there were injuries from the preceding game.
And yet Grant won its first 12 games and the East Valley League, but was overwhelmed in the City Section Division II semifinals, 63-20, by Hawkins High of Los Angeles, which went on to win the championship game against Los Angeles High.
Turns out both Hawkins and Los Angeles (which had beaten Westchester High of Los Angeles in the other semifinal, 52-6) were both very good for a reason: the teams were using ineligible players. Both were stripped of their seasonal victories following an investigation by City officials, who also vacated the Division II title and runner-up finishes. If either Grant or Westchester had played in the title game against Hawkins or Los Angeles and lost, they would have been named champions after the investigation.
Which means Grant officially went undefeated (13-0) last season — without playing for a City championship.
And then the Lancers found out later they were being moved up to Division I.
“I kinda had a feeling it would happen because the year prior to last year, we finished 8-3 (and second in the league, losing only to Arleta),” said Coach Franco Stasilli, entering his second season. “I had a feeling they were going to bump us up. But it’s something we are embracing.”
The only similarity from last year’s Lancers team to this year’s group is the varsity roster size. Once again it’s small, with 24 players. This is a younger and more inexperienced group this season, Stasilli said. That doesn’t mean a dearth of talent. But no one should be drawing parallels to the 2016 squad.
“We’re trying to tell these players not to try and live up to what last year’s team did,” Stasilli said. “Our main thing is to improve and develop these young players. So we’ve tried not to bring up a lot of ‘last year.’
“But what I do bring up is the effort that those players gave. They always went as hard as they could, all of the time. That’s something we’re struggling with this year, giving maximum effort. We do show the tape of games from last year, and how, with 20 guys, they were still giving it their all. So there’s no excuse for these players not to.”
The Lancers seem to have absorbed and accepted that mantra. Grant is off to a 2-1 start going into their road game against Rancho Dominguez High of Long Beach on Friday, Sept. 15. The loss was to San Pedro, the kind of City Division I team they needed to see, and were glad to play early in the year.
Dealing with the actual games feels secondary to the obstacles some of the players themselves have or are hurdling.
Linebacker Jose Mateo, a senior, would have been a key defender last season if he had played. But Mateo was dismissed from the Lancers for violating an undisclosed team rule on the campus. It was a tough lesson but Mateo said he has learned from it.
“I missed it,” Mateo said of football. “I would watch the games thinking I could be out there playing except for something dumb I did.
“It’s taught me about discipline — on and off the field.”
Mateo is making up for the lost time. He currently leads the team in tackles with 24, of which 19 are unassisted. Five of his tackles have resulted in lost yardage, and he’s also forced one fumble.
“Now he’s a leader,” Stasilli said. “He had to learn that in playing football you have to hold yourself to a higher standard. He did something [wrong] and he’s gotta follow the rules the coaching staff has put in place. He’s on board now. And he’s been a force as a middle linebacker.”
Adrian Beeks has gone through a different but also necessary change for the team.
Last year as the No. 2 receiver he caught 20 passes for 438 yards and nine touchdowns. Beeks fully expected to be the No. 1 wideout in 2017. Instead, Stasilli asked Beeks to move to quarterback in part because of his athleticism and also because the coaching staff did not see another prospect on the horizon ready to step in.
“It was difficult. At first I didn’t get any of it, and I’m not going to lie — I didn’t want to do it because I thought it was gonna be a waste of my time,” said Beeks who, in the Lancers’ read-option offense, has run for for 220 yards and four touchdowns in 18 carries, and passed for 248 yards and three touchdowns (against three interceptions).
“But it turned out to be something I actually look forward to doing. One, I get the ball every play, so it’s sort of my decision about what I want to do with it. And two, it makes me feel like a whole other person. I feel like I’m a leader now that I am a quarterback. It makes me see things from a different perspective.”
The one constant from last season has been running back Devon Torres, a senior. Torres is the featured offensive player in the Lancers attack. With 441 rushing yards in the team’s first three games, he’s already surpassed his 2016 season’s total. He’s also scored four touchdowns.
He said he and his teammates don’t feel inadequate from having fewer players than most teams they face.
“(A smaller roster) teaches you that just because it seems you have everything against you, it doesn’t automatically mean you’re set up for failure,” Torres said. “Sometimes it means you have to work harder for [success]. But it feels that much better to win.”
Torres also included the season-ending loss to Hawkins that was later forfeited to Grant as critical to growth of this season’s team.
“If anything brought us closer together,” he said. “It helped us see what it could be like in the playoffs this year. It’s made us want to train harder.”
“To be honest, it’s what you go with on the field. If you go out with heart, you expect something big to come out of it. If you go out thinking you’re just gonna go through the motions, you can expect failure.”
Like all City D-I teams this season, Grant knows it has a guaranteed playoff slot. What remains to be seen is what the Lancers do with the opportunity come November.
“The San Pedro loss was a good experience for most of our guys because they hadn’t experienced something like that — they out-toughed us,” Stasilli said. “Maybe some of the other guys from last year against Hawkins. But for the majority of the young guys, that was something brand new to them.
“It’s gonna make us better in the long run. Now the game is slowing down for the rest of the regular season because we’re not facing another team like that. Come November it’s going to make us better.”