Robert Garcia is a football coach with the soul of an architect. Ever since he arrived at San Fernando High in 2012 it’s been about vision and building. The first plan was to re-invigorate a prideful program that was starting to slide into irrelevancy. But the more long-term project was to design and develop a process to make the Tigers a consistent contender, not just emerge for one bright moment then recede into the shadows while chasing another bright moment.
The success is evident on both levels. San Fernando has won three LA City Section championships — two in Division II and another in Division I — in Garcia’s first seven years here. The Tigers have also kept up with being moved up the ranks; they are now an Open Division quality program that poses a genuine threat for most opponents come playoff time.
The 2019 season figures to be no different. The 47-member player roster is again a solid blend of youth and experience. Many of the starters — save for quarterback Adrian Lopez and wide receiver Chris Parker — are not widely known, but many have been on the varsity 2-3 years. Even if they weren’t always starters, they were willing to be part of the process and wait their turn. This season, 2019, is their moment.
“It’s going to be a fun season,” Garcia said. “I’m excited; these kids, nobody knows nothing about them. They were role players last year, and now they get a chance to showcase their talents.
“It reminds me of the 2012 season. Nobody knew about them, but they [went on to win the D-II title]. Last year’s team I was blessed to have for 2-3 years. They excelled. But now it’s like starting fresh again with another good group. The majority are coming back next year, and we just keep reloading.”
Parker, a senior wide receiver and defensive back, is one of those third-year varsity “unknowns” eager to prove his worth.
“My first year, we won a ring,” he said. “I didn’t really play that much, but it was fun, good memories. This year I’m hoping for the same thing in my last year. But I also want to make myself stand out more, hopefully get a [college] offer. And do something someone else hasn’t done on the field. And make myself better.”
Lopez — who emerged as the starting quarterback by passing for 915 yards and 10 touchdowns (against four interceptions) in 10 games — said he is grateful of how being part of the program has helped shape his outlook and perspectives as he goes into his senior year.
“‘San Fernando Football’ has been more than just ‘football,’” Lopez said. “The coaches here also teach ‘life.’ We talk about football in the huddle, but it all becomes about ‘life’ at the end of the day. At the end of practice, the coaches will bring up anything about how you have to work hard to get anywhere you want to be in life later on.
“Coming in as a ninth grader, I was kinda blind and going with the flow just being on the JV. But my 10th grade year was when I really started believing in the program.”
San Fernando recorded an 8-3 season in 2018, a season that ended in the City Section Open Division quarterfinals with a tough 20-14 loss to Birmingham Community Charter High.
Last year did include a third consecutive Valley Mission League championship. The Tigers — who have a 20-game winning streak in league play — so thoroughly dominated their Valley Mission competition that they only gave up one touchdown (to Reseda) in the six league games.
“The kids take pride in winning the league,” Garcia said. “We take it as a challenge. We underestimate nobody. We go in with the attitude that we’re the best team and, win or lose, we will give it our best.
“The kids understand that part. When they come to San Fernando, they know the JV’s are supposed to win the league and the varsity’s supposed to win the league. That was something I wanted to establish when I got here: that we were going to put our foot down and run the league. And wherever they put us in the playoffs, we would do our best to represent this side of the San Fernando Valley.”
A robust running game has recently defined the San Fernando offense attack and last year was no exception. The Tigers had two 1,000 yard rushers in graduating seniors Nehemiah Thompson and Kyle Bryant, who also combined for 36 rushing touchdowns.
That’s a lot of production to have to replace. Felix Rodriguez, a junior, will be given every chance to be a featured running back behind a road-grading offensive line that has four returning starters. Also getting a chance to run is Andrew Hernandez, a senior who has patiently toiled in a backup role the past couple of years.
“This year I want to rush for 1,000 yards like [Bryant] did. I want to be up there with the running backs,” Hernandez said. He also wants the Tigers to come out strong from the beginning of the season. “During the beginning of last year we weren’t sure what we had, but we kept gaining confidence. We’re more experienced this year. We definitely want to start out with wins and build on it every week.”
Lopez, too, is set upon making his senior year a memorable one.
“I want to be a leader for my teammates,” he said. “I want them to know I’ve got their backs, and I want this season to be fun. I want to get to a championship, but I want it to be my doing. I don’t like seeing other people doing the work for me to get a ring. I want to do it myself.”
A rigorous nonleague schedule that opens with visiting Leuzinger High of Lawndale on Aug. 23, and also includes Canyon High of Canyon Country, and Los Angeles high schools Franklin and Dorsey, should round San Fernando into shape for league play. By November, the Tigers will know if they are able to tackle playoff opponents like Birmingham and five-time defending City champion Narbonne High of Harbor City.
“There are certain things I remember about that [Birmingham playoff loss], things I couldn’t fix myself,” Parker said. “To be honest, I won’t use it as ‘fuel’ unless we get to play them again. This year is a new page.
“I just want everyone on our team to play to their fullest [potential]. As long as we give our best effort, I’ll be okay with it win or lose.”