There has been much handwringing of late among the aficionados of high school football regarding the continued decline of participation in the sport. And nowhere has the player-drain been felt harder than in the Los Angeles City Section, whose teams must also contend with more walk-on head coaches and smaller athletic budgets, as well as the siphoning off of talented players to private schools.
If you are Grant High — which has had to play a full regular and playoff season with a roster carrying as few as 20 varsity players — the situation can feel compounded by being stuck in Division I, the section’s top echelon of teams, where opponent rosters can be double or even triple the size of Grant’s.
It makes one think sometimes that the school mascot should be Don Quixote instead of the Lancers.
But Franco Stasilli, Grant’s young head coach, will not descend into the “woe-is-me” abyss that is readily available to him and his team. He pushes adaptability, dependability and resiliency to his players, along with “X’s” and “O’s.”
“It’s kinda a year-by-year thing,” Stasilli said, noting the 28-player roster for the 2019 season “feels like a lot. The first year I had 20 guys on game days. I know in comparison to other programs, it’s not a lot; but to us it feels like we have a good number as opposed to years past.
“I do let the players know all the time that we need everyone involved, that everyone needs to know what they’re doing. Even the guys who are backups can’t assume they’re never getting in. They’re made aware of that.”
Regarding adaptability, Stasilli came into this season wanting to further reduce the amount of hitting the players did in practice. “But we’re struggling with tackling at times in games, so we came up with another approach: when we were doing ‘team’ work we’d at least allow players to go to the ground. But not having the roster [depth], we’re careful with the physicality in practice.”
Stasilli also says the team is young. Several of the seniors had moved into starting roles for the first time. The players coming up from the junior varsity were on a team last year that went 0-10. On the surface it does not seem like a formula for success. But Grant, currently 3-3 overall and 1-1 in the East Valley League, has little interest in the blathering of outsiders.
“People are gonna think we’re not good because we’re a small [roster] but we have the talent to beat [bigger] teams,” said quarterback Andy Chavez, 16, a junior. “We just have to execute our plays and make sure we stay focused in practice and in our games.”
“You gotta do with what you have,” added senior Jeremiah Daily, 17, who plays a variety of positions, both on offense and defense. “And with the players we do have, and the talent we do have, if we continue to execute we’ll be good enough.”
The Lancers do have talent.
Chavez has thrown for 997 yards and 12 touchdowns (against eight interceptions), and is growing into his role as a team leader. “He was quarterback of the JV team last year and struggled,” Stasilli said of Chavez. “But he put in a ton of work in the offseason, and he’s actually exceeded my expectations this year. He throws a great deep ball; I noticed it on the JV last year. And now — with him learning how to play the position — he’s been outstanding for us.”
Dailey hasn’t been playing football that long, but shows remarkable versatility. Stasilli has him playing outside and middle linebacker, running back and wide receiver, and also has Dailey ready to serve as a backup quarterback if needed.
“I think he has the physical attributes for college,” the coach said of Dailey, who stands 6-1 and weighs 190. “He might need to get a little faster. But he has the size, and if he keeps working, he could play at the next level.”
Add to that mix running back Michael Smith, a senior who is listed as 5-4 and may weigh 160 pounds — after lunch — but who has rushed for 750 yards and nine touchdowns on 81 carries, and caught another seven passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns.
“He’s one of the fastest players in the City,” Stasilli said. “When he showed up as a freshman, he was already one of the fastest players in the program, if not the fastest. And now a senior, he has some more confidence after being in the weight room. He’s such a spark for us. Every game he seems to have one of those runs where guys look like they have angles on him and he runs right by them.”
Smith, 16, used to get a lot of dismissive smirks from opponents when he first started playing football at Grant. He’s seeing fewer of them this season.
“I know last year I surprised everybody,” Smith said. “I guess they [thought they could] underestimate me because I’m small, but they may not know my ability. I may still surprise some people, but I don’t depend on that.”
Smith also thinks opponents might initially underestimate Grant’s competitiveness and heart when the Lancers first take the field. “Everyone expects us to be an 0-10 team. Nobody expects us to be good.”
The Lancers did win the East Valley League championship last year, and expect to challenge for the title again this year. What happens in the playoffs, especially at the D-I level, is gravy. The players won’t expect an influx of bodies from the JV team, and they understand they are 1-2 key injuries away from this season suddenly taking a wrong turn.
But they also know who and what they are. And they’re comfortable and confident in that.
As Smith likes to say, “the less people we have, the more we can show how strong we are.”