The most obvious thing about the Canoga Park football team in 2018 is its youth. It’s everywhere.
“I’ve got maybe 6-7 seniors this year,” Head Coach Kevin Carlsen said. “And maybe 4-5 play.”
Nonetheless the Hunters are off to a 2-0 start following their 33-12 victory over Chavez High School on Aug. 24. A level of enthusiasm is starting to build, which seems a bit premature since it is still August. But the Hunters — who last played for a City football championship in 2012 — are hungry, maybe even starving, for some gridiron achievement. They’re not going to kick away any good results.
There are many different ways a season can go sideways. A key injury. Over-inflated egos. A potential great win that abruptly turns into a bad loss and hangs over the players for days, even weeks.
Besides, very young teams need time to mature and gel. And they don’t get much younger than the Hunters whose sophomore- and junior-dominated roster is as green as their team colors.
One thing is certain. The team so far is proving to be a fun group for Carlsen and his staff to teach the game — and more.
“The kids are very talented, and just have to be taught and get up to the speed of the varsity level,” Carlsen said. “Their talent is there, it’s just the inexperience.
“A lot of people don’t understand the jump from JV to varsity. I have two true freshmen coming from Pop Warner to play varsity. Five sophomores that are playing right now. It’s about getting them to work hard and learn. But I love their resilience. And they are eager to learn.”
Carlsen said the Hunters junior varsity team went undefeated last year, and that promoted group has also boosted attitudes and expectations. “They are used to winning. But they also see that varsity is different. And now they are understanding it more.”
Nose guard David Argott, a senior, said he saw the positives and potential for the team during its spring and summer practices.
“I felt a lot of us could [play],” said Argott, 17. “We just had to get the chemistry together…the personal interaction between teammates.”
He’s also forthright in assessing the current state of the team.
“I don’t know right now. I’ve got to see a few more games … we’re still working to get better. Right now the defense is [ahead] of the offense.”
And all the lessons being taught aren’t just about the game.
“Many coaches just have the relationship on the field,” Carlsen said. “But kids need your guidance and advice off the field. And it must be honest.
“We try to set the kids up for a life other than just football. The important thing is for the kids to grow up and get good jobs. One problem is accountability. That’s what we try to teach. How can you keep a job if you are constantly late for every practice? I have a business, and I tell them, ‘you couldn’t work for me if you were always late.’”
Some other team leaders besides Argott are emerging. Like Joshua Christopher, a junior, who gave the Hunters the lead for good against Chavez with a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“It takes a lot of patience,” said Christopher, 16, when asked about grooming the continued development of this group of Hunters. “It takes hard work and leadership. We definitely try to steer the younger guys in the right direction and make them work hard. If they see that work ethic in us, they’ll strive for the same thing.”
Sophomore running back Jorge Hernandez, who scored three times in the Chavez game, is considered part of the future Canoga Park expects to be bright. But the knowledge being passed along by coaches and players can only do so much; experience, like yardage, sometimes must be gained slowly and painstakingly.
“The older guys have a lot more experience than the younger guys. And the younger guys are still trying to get it,” said Hernandez, 15. “The [varsity] game is much faster, very competitive, and way bigger dudes out there…I haven’t been overwhelmed but I have been surprised.”
Coaches and players can develop an inextricable bond. But these days it can be hard. Relaxed CIF rules regarding transfers and eligibility — along with the naked recruiting of potential, promising talent and travel teams nudging athletes in specific directions — can often cause rapid and unexpected roster turnover. Sometimes a head coach doesn’t know which players will be there from year to year.
Carlsen is keeping his fingers crossed that this collective group will stick around, and be willing to mature together to see how far the group can go.
That will include this season. With rosters constantly in transition throughout California prep football, you have to be more willing to play for today since tomorrow is not promised.
A two-game sample is not enough to predict future success. But a good feeling is slowly permeating through the Hunters and the coaching staff. There could be a bigger reward down the road if the team continues to concentrate on the immediate game in front of it. That starts with the road game against West Adams High of Los Angeles on Aug. 30.
“We’re in Division II. If the team continues to grow athletically, by the playoffs we could match up with anybody,” Carlsen said. “I can’t be one of those coaches that says ‘we’ll win a championship’ after two games. But if we can get to the playoffs, then anything is possible. … let’s put ourselves in a position to win, and see what happens.”
The players agree.
“We’re gonna see some adversity later down in the season,” Christopher said. “But I’ve got a good feeling. I won’t go too far into the future; but if we can keep this thing going and work the way we need to in the weight room, the field — even the classroom — we can definitely go far.”
Hernandez is even more succinct.
“If we put the work in, on the field and off,” he said, “we can get to where we want to be.”