M. Terry / SFVS

Eagles Eye League Play — Jaylen Henderson and Isaac Gallegos will lead the Chaminade High football team into Mission League action this weekend against Notre Dame.

The football field at Chaminade High is abuzz with whistles, shouts, and the machinations of an afternoon practice, as it usually is when the varsity is preparing for a big game. But something is different. It doesn’t immediately register with a visitor at the practice. But — during a short break — Coach Ed Croson points out the difference.

“You see any other teams practicing?” he mentions, casually.

No. There are no frosh-soph or junior varsity squads working on other fields. The entire, current Chaminade football program is assembled on the main field. There are still more than 60 players on hand. But it’s a startling realization, nonetheless.

Last year Croson went through his first losing season (4-7) as a head coach, either at Chaminade— where he’s now in his 12th season — or his previous job at Birmingham (now Birmingham Community Charter High), where he won four City Section titles in six seasons. His Chaminade team won a Southern Section Division II title in 2013, and moved into the section’s Division I the following year.

But now having to take on the strongest prep football teams in the Southland weekly wasn’t the only new reality Croson had to face. He didn’t know it at the time, but the number of players who came out for football at Chaminade would soon start to decrease.

“This is a very arts-and-academics school,” Croson said. “Every year (the past four years) we’ve watched our numbers go down, from 160 players to 80. The school has a waiting list and is more selective, based solely on academics. It’s been harder to get football players to come to the school.”

He knew the player-drain would catch up to Chaminade, and it did last year. The complete results for the 2019 season aren’t in yet, of course. But the team is currently 2-3 overall and now goes into its arduous Mission League schedule, starting with Notre Dame at home on Friday, Oct. 4.

Croson lets you know quickly he’s not emailing resumes or thinking of retirement. One thing about being a teacher and/or a coach: if you run away from the first sign of adversity, what can you expect from your students, and student-athletes? Besides, all the great achievements by players don’t always have to come on the field.

“We’ve sent football players to MIT and Harvard and John Hopkins,” Croson said. “That’s the kind of kid that goes here normally. It is something to be proud of. You’d love to win Division I, but if you’re also a high school teacher, what’s the end game? That (these students) are able to support themselves in life and raise a family.”

Still, the coach isn’t interested in back-to-back losing seasons if it can be avoided. Neither are the players, who just went through the team’s bye week. It certainly wasn’t Club Med; there was lots of weight room work, film study and perhaps some recommitment.

“Usually teams take it easy. But we went very hard during the bye week,” said quarterback Jaylen Henderson, 16, a junior. “We did refresh our minds, and watched a lot of film…I think it was needed to get our minds and bodies together.”

One thing that needs to change starting Friday, Henderson said. “That we all just give our all on every play, and live with the results. And try not to [put the game] in the referee’s hands.”

Running back Blake Sullivan agrees.

“The last few games that we’ve lost, something bad goes down and everyone gets their heads down,” said Sullivan, 17, a senior. “We’re focusing on not doing that this game. If something goes wrong, we need to fight back.

“We know we have the capability. But we’ve not [always] put ourselves in the best situations. We’ve only been playing one half, not the other. Once we put a complete game together, we’ll have more wins.”

Another player who intimated the Eagles have, at times, been their own worst enemy was senior defensive back Isaac Gallegos.

“Last year we were kind of separated; our offense and defense weren’t really together,” said Gallegos, 17. “This year I wanted to see us play together as one, not just ‘offense’ and ‘defense.’ And this year I feel we’re doing a good job of that. A lot of guys are playing both ways and we understand how much we need each other on both sides of the field.”

Gallegos, 17 — who was recently presented an NFL “Way to Play” award given to high school players who block or tackle using recommended safety techniques — expected this week’s preparation for Notre Dame to be intense and demanding.

“I want to see this week of practice be more serious, be more focused,” Gallegos said. “Take the game serious. I felt like the losses to Paraclete and Oxnard, we looked unprepared. We didn’t take those games serious enough. The league games we have to take more serious, and come all out.”

Attitude and Commitment seem in place at Chaminade. Bodies are another matter. Croson is playing eight freshmen this season, partly out of necessity and also “because they’re good.” But youngish teams don’t often fare well in Division I football, and especially in a league like Mission where every team is potentially loaded with top-level talent.

“It’s a tough road to hoe,” Croson said. “But we’re okay with that. We’re going to challenge our guys. Because this also ends up being background in their lives. Wouldn’t you want your background to be strict and a challenge, and learn those kinds of lessons?

“And if we can have another [freshman] class like this one next year, we’ll be back.”