“On The Road — Again.”
Not quite the slogan the Birmingham Community Charter High football team wanted to sell for this upcoming football season. But it’s one of the obstacles the Pats are facing this fall.
The school is currently getting a new field installed — “it’ll be the best in the Valley when it’s done,” Coach Jim Rose says — but said the field probably won’t be ready until October. And with the City football season starting and ending earlier this year (on Aug. 17) due in part to the scheduling of state playoff games, Birmingham may be lucky to get one or two games on its actual home field.
“They were supposed to start (the project) last season so we only played one league game at home (in 2017),” Rose said. “We have two home games scheduled, but we won’t hold our breath.”
The other obstacles are the usual football ones: playing a tough schedule, playing in a traditionally tough league, and getting a favorable playoff berth so the Patriots won’t have to face a beast like defending City Open Division champion Narbonne High of Harbor City in the opening round on — where else — the road.
Rose, however, believes this team is better equipped physically and in maturity to withstand the potential hardships, and could emerge as one of the best teams not only in the Valley but in City Division I as well.
“We’ve got some veterans now,” Rose said. “We’re very thin at the skill positions, but very deep at the line positions. We’re big. If we don’t get banged up on the outside, we should be fine.
“I think it’s the best offense we’ve had since 2007. And that year we were pretty good (winning the City Division I title and going 13-1 overall). I’m very excited about our offense — and I’m a defensive guy.”
Handling that offense is Jason Artiga, a senior and three-year starter at quarterback. He shares his coach’s enthusiasm about the possibilities.
“Now I know what to do,” said Artiga, 17, who passed for 2,284 yards and 21 touchdowns (against five interceptions) last season. “I’m more experienced with the playbook. And if I see something fishy by the defense, I can switch things. The offensive coordinator has confidence in me to change the plays.
“We have a lot of people who can do a lot of damage. We’re not ‘young’ like we were my sophomore year, and we’re not ‘iffy’ like we were my junior year. Now I believe everybody has the drive to win a lot more games.”
Even though Birmingham’s top three wide receivers from 2017 have graduated, Rose feels Mason White, a junior, and Abdul-Lateef Audu, a senior, are ready to step in and step up as two-way players at wide out and defensive back.
A wild card could be incoming freshman Arlis Boardingham, who opened eyes in the summer passing leagues with his speed and athleticism. He also finished second in the long jump, and fourth in the triple jump while competing at the USATF Hershey National Junior Olympic Track & Field Championships recently held in July in North Carolina.
“He’s only 14 but he can play,” Rose said of Boardingham. “He might even start before the season’s over.”
The running game is expected to be stronger with Damon “DJ” Banks, who saw limited playing time last year as a transfer from Alemany High but is now available for all 10 regular season games. Birmingham has not had a 1,000-yard rusher the past two seasons, (although graduating senior Shane Bennett came close last year with 961 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns), and Banks is confident he can reverse that trend.
“I think it matters,” said Banks, 16 and now a senior, when asked whether the team needed a potent, sustainable running attack. “I would like to get 1,000 yards rushing. It’s a good number to aim for.”
The offense is not the whole show. Birmingham’s defense, led by two-time All-City linebacker Giancarlo Tarifa, expects to make it difficult for opponents.
Tarifa — a senior, who led the team in total tackles last year (75) — will be happier if the Patriots are better at finishing off games this season.
“It was frustrating,” said Tarifa, 17. “Every game [last year] we were ‘in it.’ And it was either the defense wasn’t up to par or the offense wasn’t. It was mostly mental. When we had the lead, we thought we could relax. That’s not the case. You’re supposed to put your foot on the pedal every time.
“I think it’s both a good lesson, but also where the team’s maturity is now. The seniors know that this is the last year and we will do everything we can [to win].”
“There were ‘mistakes’ last season I believe my teammates have fixed,” he said. “We were all working on them as a team. This year we’re going to be able to do what we need to do to finish games. We can win if we play hard and finish these games.”
As is customary at Birmingham, the nonleague schedule is demanding. The season opens at Harvard-Westlake High, followed by games against La Salle High of Pasadena, St. Paul High of Santa Fe Springs, Agoura High, and Notre Dame High. After that is league play, with the expected showdown game against El Camino Real High on Oct. 5.
Still, the Pats definitely expect to improve on last year’s 6-5 overall record and second place finish in the West Valley League. They also want to stay in the City’s Open Division bracket, and do better than the quarterfinals loss to Fairfax High of Los Angeles that ended the 2017 season.
Even if they have to do it (mostly) on the road this season.