Canoga Park, which first opened in 1914, is the oldest high school in the west San Fernando Valley, and it certainly has its share of high-profile alums, from actors Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) and Jacqueline Danell Obradors (“Tortilla Soup”) to Greenpeace co-founder Will E. Jackson and LaVar Ball — yes, that LaVar Ball, he of the Big Baller Brand and basketball playing sons.

When it comes to sports, Canoga Park rarely gets the kind of premium talent anymore that now often finds its way to other campuses like Chaminade, Taft, Cleveland or Birmingham. But those who remain here seem to evolve into a specific kind of athlete, especially for football.

“We have really tough kids,” Coach Kevin Carlsen said. “They may not be the most talented kids, they may not be the top tier athletes, but they’re gonna listen to you and they’re gonna be tough kids. I think in football if you’ve got tough kids, you can make it work.”

Carlsen knows of what he speaks. He played football at Canoga Park, graduating in 1997, and then going on to Azusa Pacific College. He owns a security business but came back to Canoga Park 10 years ago as a walk-on assistant coach. He was the offensive coordinator until former head coach Ivan Moreno decided to step down this past summer. Even though Carlsen and his wife were waiting for their first child, a daughter, to be born three months ago, he accepted the head coaching job here to preserve some system continuity for the players. He’s still a walk-on coach.

Not an easy life. Some would say a tough life — or at least a busy one. But it’s a life he readily accepts. So far there’s been only one drawback.

“Sleep? What’s that,” he said, smiling.

The players are pleased Carlsen accepted the job, none more so than center and linebacker Chris Rizo, a senior who — like many on the current Hunters roster —has known Carlsen since his freshman year. 

“He really stepped up, going from assistant coach and offensive coordinator to head coach,” said Rizo, 17. “It helps knowing he put in a lot of effort in order to make this team better, and how it is now. It really stands out knowing he stepped up in this situation.”

“As a school, we know what we play for and what we represent,” said running back and linebacker Daniel Perez, 17, a senior. “And that means whatever job the coach gives us, we do it 100 percent regardless of the situation. If I’m the holder of the ball on the extra point or field goal, I do it 100 percent.”

Carlsen isn’t the only one with an interesting backstory. Quarterback Andrew Galvan, 16, had played on the Canoga Park junior varsity as a freshman and sophomore. Last year he transferred to Cleveland High, but decided to come back here as a senior, and is the starter.

“I was a little worried there might have been some bad vibes from some of the players because I left like it was nothing, and I came back like it was nothing,” Galvan said. “I thought there would be some ‘Oh, what is he doing back here.’ But there were some smiles on some people’s faces, and I was welcomed with a feeling that it would be fine during the season.

“The O-line I came back to was my starting O-line when I was a sophomore. So I’m comfortable having them in front of me instead of other people. Danny was my starting running back as a sophomore, glad to have him too. It’s everybody I’m used to — just a few add-ons to the team. Everything else is fine.”

The Hunters are currently 3-1 under Carlsen and his staff as the team prepares to face winless Van Nuys (0-3) on Friday, Sept. 22 in the Valley Mission League opener for both teams. Canoga Park has rebounded from a season opening loss to Taft with three straight wins, including an exciting 22-20 victory against Chatsworth on Sept. 15 where the defense foiled a Chancellors’ two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the game in the last two minutes.

The Taft loss and the Chatsworth win have each provided valuable insights for the team, Carlsen said.

“I still don’t think we’ve played, for ourselves, our best game. I feel we’re getting to where we need to be, but until we do we need to take every team we play seriously,” Carlsen said.” I don’t care who it is — you can lose any Friday night. Over the 10 years I’ve been here, I’ve seen us lose games to teams that we were better than. So we need to keep getting better.”

The players say they understand.

“(From the Chatsworth win) we learned we can do anything that’s possible. We can come together as one, and win as one,” Rizo said. “In the season opener, the chemistry wasn’t really there yet. But this past week proved our chemistry has built up, and our team is more stable.”

“Basically we learned ‘don’t underestimate any teams.’ And just keep fighting until the end of the game,” added Perez.

As a City Section Division I team, the Hunters already have a guaranteed playoff game. Carlsen doesn’t want the team thinking that far ahead. Right now the only thing that matters is league play. There are at least three teams — Reseda, San Fernando, and Sylmar — that will provide sturdy, definitive tests. There could be others.

It could be tough.

Canoga Park expects to be tough as well.

“The rest of the season should be pretty interesting because our team is really looking forward to it,” Rizo said.