Sylmar has spent the first six weeks of the 2017 season figuring out what kind of team it has and is now — theoretically, at least — operating in a higher gear to challenge for the Valley Mission League championship and a favorable playoff berth.
It’s not like we haven’t seen this act before. In fact, Spartan fans witnessed the same thing last year, so much so the team’s current record (3-3, 2-0) is identical to what it was at this point in the 2016 season.
But it’s not exactly the same.
Last year the Spartans were experiencing life without talented quarterback Clarence Williams, Jr. for the first time in four years. Williams brilliantly directed the team to two league titles and a City Section Division II finals appearance while at Sylmar.
This year many of the Spartans, collectively, are new — not only to the varsity, but to the game.
“We have had a lot of guys who’ve had to step up,” noted Coach John Brazil this week, as the team prepared for its game against visiting Panorama High on Friday, Oct. 13.
“We have guys who have never played football before. Not a lot of returners from last year who truly played…maybe 7-8. Definitely under 10. It’s a brand new team.”
And like he did with Williams, Brazil selected a freshman, Emiliano Contreras, to be the starting quarterback.
“He just kinda took the job during the summer,” Brazil said. “He’s very smart, has a good arm. And we kept the offense simple for him; he’s really got control of it, and the team believes in him. We’re trying to be balanced, and he knows he has to pick up his [passing] accuracy. But the smarts and the arm are there, so we feel the accuracy can come.”
It probably doesn’t hurt that Contreras, 14, has several family members who played football at Sylmar, including cousins who were on the 1992 and 1994 City 3A championship teams. “They taught me a lot of what I know now,” Contreras said, including having the mental makeup to not be overwhelmed by “the moment,” or fall back on youth as a barometer for his weekly performance.
“I like to see myself not as ‘the freshman’ on the team, but as the quarterback,” said Contreras, who so far has completed 35 of 104 passes for 603 yards and four touchdowns (with seven interceptions). “People tell me ‘you did pretty good as a freshman.’ It honestly offends me. I feel like (whether) a freshman or senior, my level of the game relies on my skill. If I am a freshman or not, my confidence should be the same.”
The Spartans have tried not to lean on Contreras too heavily for their offense. Brazil expected the team’s offensive line to again be a strength, and so far it has been. Sylmar has been averaging nearly 200 rushing yards a game, including a season high 315 yards in the Sept. 22 victory against Kennedy.
The move to a more power-run game instead of a spread passing attack is one of the differences in this team, according to right tackle Austin Gomez, a returning starter.
Even though the record is the same as last year, “In a way it (feels the same) and in a way it doesn’t,” said Austin, 17, a senior. “I think the difference is working with new people. Last year, it was a bunch of seniors. This year it feels new. Maybe the team aspect feels different.”
Linebacker and wide receiver Joel Harris, another returning player, agrees with Gomez.
“There were a lot of changes of the players,” said Harris, 17, a senior. “We lost a lot of guys. But we’re trying to come together as a team, a family, so we can get better every day as a group.
“A couple of players who came up from the JV have really stepped it up. People who came out for the first time, and maybe didn’t look that good in the summer, are getting the job done.”
Friday’s game is the last so-called “easy” contest on the Spartan’s schedule. Panorama is winless (0-7, 0-3) and struggles to score. The Pythons have averaged only 10 points per game, and given up an average of 34 points per game.
But Brazil said the Spartans will not take their homecoming and Senior Night opponent lightly.
“We know they’re gonna be tough,” Brazil said. “They ran the ball on us good last year, and I know they’re gonna come in with that mentality. And if we don’t stop the run, it’s gonna be a long night.”
Sylmar — which has also adjusted to the loss of running back Erin Jones after the senior broke his wrist in the opener against Crespi — will finish the regular season against Reseda, Canoga Park and San Fernando. That gauntlet should smooth out any remaining rough edges the Spartans have entering the City playoffs, either in the Open or Division I brackets.
“We’re kinda right where we want to be,” Brazil said. “It’s been fun teaching new guys how to play football, watching them learn and grow. Once they got their feet under them from the nonleague schedule, they have rolled it over to league.”
The players are eager to keep building their momentum toward the November postseason.
“We can only get better,” Gomez said. “But I think we’re at a good point right now.”