When Sean Jackson left Fulton Prep High to become the head football coach at Verdugo Hills High, he thought he was inheriting a good core of players who might be on the verge of competing for a championship.
But he almost didn’t make it past his first year.
“It was chaotic,” said Jackson, thinking back to the 2015 season, which ended 3-7. “The problem was a changing of the guard, with a different philosophy and expectations. I guess some stuff they got away with before, I didn’t let them get away with now. I almost wanted to walk away.”
Things weren’t much better in 2016. The Dons again only won three of 10 games and several players were openly not happy with several assistant coaches. Some players, in fact, seriously considered not returning for another year of football. Jackson realized he had to make some other changes, or any decision about leaving might not be his decision.
So along with reshuffling the coaching staff, Jackson also decided to be the offensive coordinator, putting in a system he liked or could live with, no matter what the outcome would be.
Fortunately for all involved, the Dons had a reversal of fortunes in 2017.
A good reversal.
The team has won eight games, the most victories since the 2006 season. And they have emerged from the earlier playoff rounds to face Marshall High of Los Angeles for the City Section Division III championship at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 2, at El Camino Real College in Torrance.
Verdugo Hills isn’t the only Valley area team seeking a City title this weekend. Cleveland High takes on Huntington Park High for the Division II championship at 3 p.m., and San Fernando High plays Dorsey High of Los Angeles for the Division I championship at 7 p.m. Those games are also at El Camino Real College.
The Dons are trying to win their first City football championship in football. That 2006 team, which finished 12-1, was the last Verdugo Hills team to reach a semifinal — this time in Division III — losing to Garfield High of Los Angeles.
Their breakthrough in Division III this year has lifted something of a burden off the team, whose coaches and players felt this time might — at last — be their time.
“This is the year they all bought in,” Jackson said. “To be honest the first two years, in my opinion, the team was more well-rounded. But this year everything came together — from staff to players.”
Diego Robles, who plays both offensive and defensive tackles, agrees.
“I feel it’s a completely different team from the last couple of years,” Robles said. “I feel the offense has changed a lot. We’ve matured and grown together. Most of the team are seniors who have experience … this year may not have happened a year or two ago. I felt like this year was meant to be as long as we believed in what the coaches put in.”
Robles, 17, a senior, admitted he was one of those feeling ambivalent about playing. He had transferred to Verdugo Hills from Poly High after his freshman year. He didn’t play as a sophomore, and was restricted to two games as a junior because of injury. But he wasn’t happy with the direction he felt the program was going in, until he had a conversation with quarterback Mason Van Kempen.
“Mason was saying he was pretty sure we were going to have a good year, so I started coming around and watching the passing league games,” Robles said. “I saw the potential. So I decided to play.”
Interestingly, Van Kempen, 18, a senior, at first was having second thoughts about returning. He didn’t like the offense the team was running in 2016 — “we were just basically throwing the ball up (for grabs),” he said — but when Jackson showed how things would change during spring practice, his doubts evaporated.
“This year there were patterns, more schemes, more multiple options on a play,” Van Kempen said. “It’s one reason we’ve been scoring so much. And this team had a lot of chemistry, but we didn’t really have a chance to put it all together until this year. Coach Jackson found a scheme to make everything work, from running to passing — a balance.”
The Dons have definitely been potent on offense, averaging nearly 39 points a game. They have scored 40 or more points in nine of their previous 13 games.
“I feel we could still be better,” said tackle and linebacker Oliver Cardenas, 17, a senior who transferred into Verdugo Hills this academic year from Blair High in Pasadena.
“We average 40 points, and I feel we could average more. The system works like that. We have a high-powered offense.”
There have been games when the Dons have needed all that scoring.
“We are, in a nutshell, the Cardiac Kids,” Jackson said. “So unpredictable — I don’t always know what I’m getting week-to-week. We’re 8-5 now, but there were three other games we should have won. But they really love playing offense. So our philosophy is, whoever gets to 40 points first is the winner. I jokingly tell our defensive staff, ’39 points is your cutoff.’”
Last week’s semifinal game against Monroe High was an apt illustration of what the Dons have been and can be. They allowed the Vikings to jump out to an early 20-7 lead, but then reeled off 41 consecutive points from the middle of the second quarter to the fourth quarter and won going away, 48-28.
Van Kemp had — for him — a terrific game and a terrible game in the same game. He would throw five interceptions. But he also threw four touchdown passes.
“To be honest, they kind of surprised us (on defense) with different coverages,” he said. “They double-teamed our primary receivers (Nick Watkins and Charlie Cornelio) to make sure they couldn’t do anything deep against them. When we realized they weren’t going to let us pass the ball deep, we had to make some scheme adjustments during halftime. We started clicking after that.”
If Verdugo Hills again has five interceptions — and six turnovers overall — against Marshall as it did against Monroe, the results could be disastrous, Jackson said.
“They are very balanced,” he said of the Barristers (10-3). “They have a great quarterback in (Daniel) Soto. You have to be very aware of him, he makes great decisions. From what I’ve seen so far, Marshall should have been the number one seed. It’s going to be a tough game. They are very good offensively, run or pass. We have to be ‘on’ to beat them.”
The Dons will find out for sure on Saturday. But at least, in their minds, they have a team capable of playing for a championship.
City Section Championship Games
Saturday, Dec. 2
Dorsey vs. San Fernando, 7 p.m.
Cleveland vs. Huntington Park, 3 p.m.
Verdugo Hills vs. Marshall, 11 a.m.
All games will be played at El Camino Real College, located at 16007 Crenshaw Blvd., in Torrance. The campus and stadium can be reached from both the 405 and 91 freeways. General admission tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for students with school ID and $10 for seniors. Admission is good for all three games. Children ages four and under enter free. Ticket sales begin two hours prior to the first game game — cash or credit cards only. Ticket booths are located at the southeast end of the stadium. Home team spectators will enter the east side bleachers, and visiting spectators the west side bleachers. There are accommodations for wheelchairs and those with restricted mobility. There are no in-and-out privileges allowed. Parking is $3 per car and available in lots H & F with access from Redondo Beach Boulevard, or lot C with access from Manhattan Beach Boulevard.