When Robert Garcia assumed the mantle at San Fernando High in 2011, he had some lofty goals for a first time head coach still north of his 30th birthday.
Not only did Garcia want to win championships, he wanted to return the Tigers back to the glory of being a City Section Division I champion. He didn’t know how long the journey would take — or if he would still be around when it happened. Coaching jobs are consistently at risk to impatient fan bases, indifferent administrations or built-up frustrations from a lack of facilities, finances or changing demographics that create a shallower talent pool.
But even though he is a Kennedy High grad, Garcia — who worked several years as an assistant coach before getting this offer — knew San Fernando had a proud lineage of playing big-time football, an image that was weathered and tattered. Things had to change.
On Saturday, Dec. 2, San Fernando fulfilled Garcias’ quest by defeating Dorsey High of Los Angeles, 28-21, in the Division I title game played at El Camino College in Torrance. It marked Garcia’s third championship here as a head coach, following back-to-back City Division II titles in 2012 and 2013. Just as important, the win re-emphasized everything Garcia felt about his 2017 group of players, a group Garcia said might be better then the other title teams.
“When I first saw them, overall I felt it was a group with speed, strength, and the ability to play football. They had it all,” said Garcia reflecting a day after the Dorsey game.
“It took awhile. I was trying to find the right player leader. We lost to Alemany and Notre Dame (in nonleague games), and I worried after the Notre Dame game some guys would go into the tank. But other guys stepped up.
“They’re still young The majority come back next year. My seniors who had been with me four years, I told them the young guys had brought the urgency to win. I said, ‘either you guys buy in or we’re going lose.’ They committed themselves. We all had a plan.”
San Fernando’s football championship legacy dates back to the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. The first title was in 1937. The team has now won eight City football championships overall, breaking a tie with Fremont High of Los Angeles for sixth best all-time. But it’s the 1974 and 1975 teams that featured future USC and NFL star Charles White, among others, which many old San Fernando heads speak about rapturously, in part because they were the last Division I winners from here.
Until now. Because on Saturday — after Dorsey (7-7) scored a touchdown on a one-yard run by Charles Mincy, Jr. in the game’s opening drive — the Tigers (12-2) jumped on the Dons with all four paws and, for the most part, never jumped back off.
San Fernando scored the next 28 points through the first, second and third quarters. And the Tigers did it in a manner Dorsey could not have believed possible for the Tigers offense to sustain — running the ball, all night long.
The San Fernando offensive line was brilliant and dominant, constantly opening gaps and pathways for the team’s collective of runners. The main recipients were Trevor Gill and Kyle Bryant, both juniors, whose speed and power never waned. Gill ran for 151 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries. Bryant added 86 more yards on 17 carries.
“I knew I would have to run as hard as I did,” said Gill, who put San Fernando ahead for good, — 14-7 — via a seven-yard jaunt within the first quarter. “But I wasn’t surprised we could run. I believe in my line. I believe they’re the best in the City.”
As a team, the Tigers rushed for 259 yards. And they didn’t bother with a lot of trickery or misdirection. Most of the plays were sweeps and power pitches, just to give the running backs a sliver of room and watch the Dorsey defenders have to chase them down. The San Fernando backs were rarely stopped for a loss or at the line of scrimmage.
“Nobody could stop us,” said quarterback Andrew Frias, who tied the game with a one-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. “The line really stepped up; everybody did their job. I could see [Dorsey’s] frustration in their eyes.”
The running game worked so well that quarterback Andrew Frias — another junior — only had to throw two passes all game. Both were completed, including an 11-yard touchdown toss to Robert Valdez that made the score 21-7 early in the second quarter.
Garcia watched, beaming.
“I’m sure it was in their heads (that Dorsey was supposed to have the superior athletes),” he said. “They came out to try and intimidate us, but our kids were focused. Nobody said anything, we just did what we had to do. We weren’t here to talk back and forth, but to play disciplined. When I saw that, I knew the game was ours.”
Nehemiah Thompson’s three-yard touchdown run with 4:52 seconds left in the third quarter, then putting San Fernando ahead 28-7, seemed like the final brushstroke on an artistic masterpiece. Dorsey was struggling to sustain any offensive momentum; the Dons running attack was being held in check and quarterback Mekhi Ellis was either overthrowing receivers or running away from a fierce pass rush. The Tigers defense sacked him five times.
But the Dons still had the kind of athletes that could score from anywhere on the field on a single play. And late in the fourth quarter, they made things interesting.
Dion Bascom turned a short Ellis pass into a 70-yard touchdown at the 5:33 mark. And on Dorsey’s next possession — following a Tigers punt — Mincy took another swing pass from Ellis and weaved his way through the San Fernando defense for a 67-yard touchdown.
That shrunk the Tigers lead to 28-21. And with 3:23 left on the clock, Dorsey could still pull out a miracle comeback if the Dons could get the ball one more time.
Dorsey did, in fact, get one last possession. But the furthest the Dons could get was their own 32-yard line as time ran out.
“I had a feeling they would get back in it,” Garcia said. “But when they had to use their last time out (with under five minutes to play), the game was ours.”
Narbonne High of Harbor City remains the football bar everyone else is in the City Section is trying to measure against. The Gauchos proved that emphatically with their 48-7 decimation of Crenshaw High of Los Angeles in the Open Division title game — the highest level in City football — for a fourth consecutive City championship, and 10th overall in program history: a total even more impressive when you consider they have won nine of them since 2001.
“(Manuel Douglas) is one of my favorites,” said Garcia, speaking of the Narbonne head coach. “You have to admire someone like that. I would like to have something like that. They have a tradition there, they have everything. Every coach should build their program like Narbonne and simulate them as much as possible.”
Sounds like Garcia has his next goal already in mind.