M. Terry / SFVS

A Senior Moment — Highlanders Owen Jennings and Justin Tapia hope their first round playoff home game against Locke High School on Friday, Nov. 2, is not their last game.

Author and philosopher Carlos Castaneda once noted that “We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.” 

So even the lopsided loss to Birmingham Community Charter High that Granada Hills Charter High absorbed in its season finale, 42-0, cannot dampen the feeling of resurgence. The Highlanders had won five straight games going into the Birmingham contest last week and, like the Patriots, were undefeated in West Valley League action.

Most important, they are 5-4, going into the 2019 postseason. If they can win at least one more game, it would give Granada Hills its first overall winning record since 2011, when the Highlanders finished 7-6. (They did record 7-7 and 6-6 marks in 2012 and 2013).

The Highlanders will get that chance at home on Friday, Nov. 8, against Locke High of Los Angeles in the first round of the City Section Division I playoffs.

“That was definitely cool. We were hoping for that,” Coach Bucky Brooks said.

The Highlanders are hoping for more, of course. Their last City championship dates back to 1986, and their only other title was in 1970.

A ring would be an amazing accomplishment. But when you haven’t played better than .500 football for the past seven years, re-establishing a winning program is a more immediate objective.

“I would say the culture is changing here,” said Justin Tapia, 17, a senior who is the team’s second leading rusher with 609 yards and has scored a team-high nine touchdowns. “The first day we met in February — actually Valentine’s Day — the first thing Coach said was ‘we’ll be playing Birmingham for the league championship the last game of the season.’ We’d been 2-8, 3-7, so we were like, ‘yeah, right, whatever.’ But there we were, in the league championship game against Birmingham.

“The student body has noticed we are winning games. Before, like last year, it was like ‘same old Granada, just make sure you guys beat Kennedy.’ But we had those five straight wins and it was ‘keep it going.’ People were excited. It’s something the seniors can take pride in. People believe Granada can win some games.”

Another senior — Owen Jennings, who plays safety and wide receiver — said the players feel Granada Hills has the right coach in place.

“The biggest difference — he has a bit more of a patient nature, in  being calm with us,” said Jennings, 17. “He knows how to explain things really well. If you do something wrong, he approaches you and lets you know what you did wrong without going overboard. He can yell when he needs to — we know he has that aspect — but it’s his choice to be calm, cool and collected with you.”

In Brooks, the Highlanders do have a head coach with an impressive background.

Originally from Raleigh, NC, Brooks played football and ran track at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was a second round draft pick by the Buffalo Bills in 1994 (48th player overall) and spent five years in the NFL as a kick return specialist, with stops in Buffalo, Green Bay, Jacksonville, Kansas City and Oakland. After his playing days ended, he worked as an NFL scout for seven years, wrote for Sports Illustrated magazine and was an analyst for the NFL Network.

But teaching and coaching — especially coaching — was in his blood, said Brooks, who worked at Notre Dame High for several years as an assistant before coming to Granada Hills and, eventually, becoming the head coach.

He said he has built up a storehouse of wisdom that he is eager to pass along.

“I’ve been fortunate to be around a bunch of great head coaches. All of them are either a Hall of Famers or won a Super Bowl,” Brooks said. “I pulled a little bit from each coach, to try and see what works, and what works over the long term.”

Outside of his high school coach Earl Smith, Mack Brown at North Carolina had the biggest influence on Brooks. “Coach Brown is a real ‘people person;’ he’s all about the players first, treats the players the way he wanted to be treated. Make the program about the players, give the players the things they need to be successful and everything will flow out of that. He was always very positive, very enthusiastic. Demanding, but not demeaning.”

Brooks and his coaches re-fitted the Highlanders’ offense with the Double Wing-style running scheme, which seemingly flies in the face of today’s pass-happy offenses flooding the football landscape. It’s not an easy offense to learn or master and it can make you appear seemingly one-dimensional. But Brooks and his staff didn’t turn to it just to be contrarian.

“It wasn’t in our minds initially to be a Double Wing program,” Brooks said. “But…If everyone else is ‘spread,’ being different may give you an advantage. And at the first team meeting, I asked if we had any quarterbacks or wide receivers and no one raised their hand. We were also committed to [building the team] without transfers, just neighborhood kids. So we had to be a little more systematic.

“The Double Wing gives us a system where we can compete. And as we develop our players, the better we will be overall. Even in the beginning of the season we didn’t want to do it. But we had to, out of necessity, because we were a little overwhelmed with the other stuff we were doing. We wanted to give kids something they could hang their hats on. It is something they are starting to feel good about, and it is creating an identity for our program. It is also an offense that fosters selflessness. You gotta be a team player if you’re in an offense where you don’t throw the ball much.”

How it will translate in this year’s postseason is anyone’s guess. But, at first glance, how this year’s postseason will turn out is also anyone’s guess.

The City 2019 playoffs were jolted on Friday. Nov. 1, by the announcement that five-time defending champion Narbonne High School of Harbor City had been banned from the postseason by section officials for having used multiple ineligible players this season and an ineligible player last season. (The Gauchos are also banned from the 2020 playoffs, must vacate their 2018 Open Division title, and were placed on probation through 2022-23 school year.)

Which makes the Open Division playoff — excuse the expression — wide open, at least in the eyes of the eight teams competing for the title. And the reshuffling of the playoff deck goes past the Open bracket, into the remaining Division I, II, and III brackets.

That’s not Granada’s concern. The Highlanders are, instead, happy to be in the postseason conversation as something other than cannon fodder. But now it’s about finding a way to get past Locke, which finished 6-4 overall and second in the Coliseum League behind Crenshaw High of Los Angeles. 

“[The Saints] won the Division II title last year,” Brooks said. “They’re athletic, they’re fast and they are physical. We need to play our best game of the year to win in the first round.”

And guaranteeing that overall winning season which, in itself, would be something to celebrate, according to Brooks.

“We have big dreams and big expectations for what we want to get done at Granada Hills. This could be the first step in that direction,” the coach said. “To finish the season with a winning record would raise the pride in the community. It may allow some of the neighborhood kids to see Granada as a viable option — knowing they could get high-level coaching and experience winning.

“We are looking to change the narrative….And the way we can do it is to have success at Granada doing it in a way that reflects the community and makes them proud of the program.”