Manny Maldonado, Saleem Marshall and Adedeji Olabode belong to a special group of Reseda Charter High students. And not simply because they are seniors who have not yet reached their 17th birthdays, or the fact all three play the same position on the Regents football team — linebacker — and play it so well that Coach Alonso Arreola calls them “the core of our defense.”

The trio were part of a precocious bunch of sophomores that helped Reseda win the 2019 City Section Division I championship, the school’s first football title in 24 years. As sophomores, they said, they were mentored by the seniors on the Reseda way to play football.

Now Maldonado, Marshall and Olabode are the mentors. It’s their turn, they said, to ensure the incoming freshmen and sophomores who make the 2021 varsity maintain the high level of performance that has come to define Regents football the past several years.

“We had special seniors [in 2019],” Olabode said. “Almost the whole team were sophomores, and we looked to the seniors for help. The spectacular things they were doing on the field — we were emulating that in the offseason and practice, trying to replicate their greatness on the field.”

Olabode then rattles off the names of several key starters in 2019, including Mario Martinez, Dranel Rhodes, Trent Butler, and Prophet Tagoai. “They were all standup guys,” he said.

Maldonado insists the work ethic the seniors instilled in the sophomores in 2019 — along with the detailed guidance Arreola and his staff provided week after week — was a major reason the Regents won that title.

“It was very exciting overall, even the losses we took that season. Because those losses made us better,” Maldonado said.

“We learned from our mistakes with our great coaching staff. We broke down every problem we had on defense from the nose guard to the safety, and what to do on every play. We saw what we could be like when everyone worked together.”

  It’s why not having a fall season, because of the coronavirus pandemic had shut down all campuses in the Los Angeles Unified School District, was difficult at first.

“The COVID situation was discouraging,” Marshall said. “I wasn’t losing hope, but everything around us was so negative. I remember my friends going to private schools — they were practicing. I was thinking, ‘what about us?’ It felt unfair.

“But when Coach (Arreola) told us we were going to play spring ball, everything turned around.”  

The sense of maturation surrounding Reseda football wasn’t just felt by the players.

The championship breakthrough Arreola had been patiently building toward since becoming Reseda’s head coach in 2005 had brought forth equal amounts of joy and relief. And despite the upheaval created by the pandemic, Arreola did not let the team or himself be engulfed in wave after wave of despondency.

“If you had posed that question to me [about a canceled season] 10 years ago, I would have felt like it was a punch in the gut,” Arreola said. “I would have been very frustrated that we could not have continued on the momentum [from a championship], especially since I felt we still had a good core group of those kids coming back. And we still have a group of those kids for this season.

“But being a bit more mature and taking life as it comes, you do understand that there are things you just can’t control…. While it was unfortunate we couldn’t give the [2020] seniors an opportunity to try to win back-to-back championships, we all saw the positive side — the fact they did have this accomplishment. And there were things going on that were far more important than football at the time.”

The condensed spring football season in April allowed by LAUSD did give Reseda a chance to play four games (winning three), and provided an allusion rather than an illusion of normalcy.

“We made it a point that we wanted to compete as much as we could,” Arreola said. “We knew we would be limited in what we were able to introduce, and we had to condense our playbook — especially on the offensive side. So we went into it with that mindset, and to not be frustrated.

“It was not a situation of ‘here is what we would have done last year because we had ‘X’ number of plays installed.’ We couldn’t do that this year, mainly because we didn’t have the resource of time. We just did what we could.”

But with summer workouts now in full swing, and a complete 10-game slate ahead starting on Aug. 20, Maldonado, Marshall and Olabode — are just as eager to be dropping knowledge like they plan to drop opposing ballcarriers on field.

“I’m telling the young guys, ‘listen to the coaches,’” Maldonado said. “Because no matter how good you think you are, you’re not as good as you think you are; the coaches can see something greater in you than you can see in yourself.

“Last year, with all the [pandemic adversity], it was about growing up and seeing how much stronger our team can be. When we were sophomores, those seniors and juniors led us into the direction of being great. Now we want to do the same thing with the younger guys.”