Matching a young and somewhat inexperienced team with a difficult schedule can often be a recipe for disaster — or at least make for a lot of bruising of bodies and egos.
But that didn’t stop Sierra Canyon Coach Jon Ellinghouse from arranging as challenging a 2018 season schedule as possible for the Trailblazers, whose 57-player roster lists only nine seniors.
“There was no doubt that our young group was extremely talented. But we’re playing in a tough level of football, being a Division III team, and toward the top of it. So I wanted my guys battle-tested,” Ellinghouse said.
“That means you have to play Division I and Division II type teams. In the beginning we lost two close games. It was not as if they were blowout scores or anything, but we did little things wrong to lose the game. But I think our young guys have matured and have done a really good job working toward getting better. And it’s very evident that we are a better football team now than we were back in [September].”
Indeed, the Trailblazers — after an 0-2 start — are 9-3 overall and will play the Citrus Hill High Hawks, located in Perris, CA, on Friday, Nov. 16. The winner plays for the Southern Section Division III championship the following week.
With so many freshmen, sophomores and juniors in key roles this season for Sierra Canyon, the obvious assumption is the team is somehow ahead of schedule. That next year’s team was going to be the team to watch. And that very well may be so.
But there is plenty to watch right now. The Trailblazers, as has often been the case under Ellinghouse, have the offensive talent to explode scoreboards, and the defensive capability to keep any game from getting out of hand. All three losses — to Westlake, Lawndale and Calabasas — were by seven points or less.
Ellinghouse gives lots of credit to the team’s offensive line — Josh Carlin, Jason Gilmore, Cruz Nix, Chris Pruett and Josh Roca — for being the team’s stabilizing force, especially at the beginning.
“We relied on the O-line a ton to lead us to this point. And they’ve done a great job,” Ellinghouse said.
Carlin, 17, a senior, said the starting quintet has been locked in as a unit since summer practice, and was ready to shoulder whatever load Ellinghouse and his staff would put on them.
“Last year we had a similar O-line but we weren’t as experienced as being one,” he said. “But we really worked on our bond over the summer, and it transferred into the season. Now we’re as dominant as we can be. We get after every D-line, linebackers…it doesn’t matter.”
Pruett, 17, a senior and the biggest lineman at Sierra Canyon (listed at 300 pounds), agrees with his teammate.
“There was no doubt in my mind that our team was raw talent. I knew it would just take a little bit of experience to get the ball rolling,” Pruett said.
The biggest benefactor of the line’s play and attitude has been sophomore quarterback Chayden Peery, who earned the starting job last year but is much more comfortable and confident this season.
“He was a talented, bright freshman. But he was still a freshman,” Ellinghouse said. “Having had a year of working in the system, and being the ‘guy’ during the summer and getting every rep went a long way for him. He’s had a good sophomore campaign. And I think the exciting thing is there is still room for improvement for him. And I think he’s going to work really hard to get there.”
Peery said the guys in front of him made it possible.
“I have the best line I’ve had in my entire life. They’re really good,” Peery said. “I have a close bond with all of them. We’re always talking at free periods, and at lunch, hanging out. They’ve protected me the whole season. They’ve been the biggest part of this team this year. All of our running backs have had gaping holes to run through.”
The undefeated Hawks (12-0) have beaten back opponents with a sound running game that features senior quarterback Dee Miles (1,047 yards) and sophomore running back A.J. Porter (855 yards). Both have scored 16 rushing touchdowns. The Hawks defense has recorded five shutouts. Their closest game came last week against Downey, a 35-28 victory.
But Sierra Canyon has won four straight since the loss against Calabasas High. And the Trailblazers’ scores have been escalating — 44 points against San Pedro, 49 points against Paraclete, 55 points against Roosevelt of Eastvale, and 62 points against Moorpark last week. Peery has passed for 2,515 yards and 15 touchdowns (against seven interceptions) this season, but he also has a big-time running threat to lean on in E.J. Gable. The speedy senior has rushed for 1,073 yards and 19 touchdowns. Hunter Williams, a junior, can also carry the ball — 651 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns.
“We’re playing our best football right now. The best game we played was last week (against Moorpark),” Ellinghouse said.
The only downside to this ascendancy: the Trailblazers are the road team this week and must take the nearly two-hour bus ride into Riverside county on Friday.
But Sierra Canyon is happy to do so. They’re one of the few teams still playing. And a victory means playing for a championship during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
Besides, they’re young. Two-hour bus rides are an adventure when you’re young.
Rest assured the team — especially, the O-line — will be ready once they arrive.
“We’ve come through adversity and overcome adversity,” Pruett said. “Throughout the season we have become more experienced. And the fact that we care for each other makes us want to push through and win.”