Ed Croson has — no surprise — fielded some excellent football teams at Chaminade High since coming back to the West Valley area Catholic school in 2009 (for the second time) after molding Birmingham Charter High into a City Section power. In this current stretch, he won a CIF Southern Section and state Division IV championship in 2014, and has also won several Mission League titles.

But ever since Chaminade was moved — some say pushed — into the section’s Division I which, in all honesty, is the strongest division in Southern California football, there’s an inescapable feeling the Eagles have to keep running uphill in search of a level playing field.

Croson chuckles a bit at the analogy.

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“That’s been our problem,” he said, in trying to annually compete with perennial private school powers like Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, St. John Bosco High in Bellflower, Oaks Christian in Westlake, or Centennial High in Corona. And then there are Valley high-profile football programs like Bishop Alemany High and Sierra Canyon High.

“At our school, beyond just getting in … everybody pays [some tuition cost],” Croson said. “Because of our admission policies, we can lose kids because of that. But we’ve still been competitive.”

Case in point: the Eagles were 8-6 overall in 2019, but reached the Division I final before losing to Sierra Canyon. The journey to the championship game is a satisfying yet instructive memory for Croson.

“This is how we got there,” the coach said. “We beat Norco at Norco because they thought it was gonna be an easy game. They didn’t dress a couple of guys we didn’t think we could cover, but who were dinged up, and they were saving them for the [quarterfinal game]. We ended up beating them with 13 seconds left on the clock.

“The next week we had Upland, and their coach had them on the field working out two hours before the game. We beat them in overtime, stopping them on a two-point conversion attempt. And the semifinal game, San Clemente got in trouble and had to forfeit. We found out an hour-and-a-half before we got on the bus.

“I don’t think there is a narrower margin you can have to reach the final,” Croson said.

That 2019 team was relatively young, with more underclassmen than upperclassmen. The 2021 team will be even younger. Croson said he expects to play “7-8 freshmen here and there,” and a generous sprinkling of sophomores and juniors will see prominent time on the field. But in playing a spring schedule (and going 4-2, including winning the last four in a row once Jacob Macias established himself at quarterback), there have been some trials-by-fire that may have shown the newer varsity players how to measure up.

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Lineman Zach Eagle — a perfect surname for Chaminade football — is one of several seniors Croson is leaning on to keep the sophomores and freshmen from being discouraged by a demanding schedule.

“I’ve learned how to manage time and how to be confident in myself,” said Eagle, 17, who stands 6-6 and weighs 295-pounds. “That’s really what you’ve got to do — manage your time and build your confidence in yourself in addition to being a great athlete. The second you lose that confidence, or mess up on your time management, [things] can fall apart. You can regain that, but it won’t be the same as when you first had that rhythm going.”

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Other seniors like twin defensive ends John and Victor Crawshaw, 17, said they will emphasize the value of growing up fast and growing into prominent roles as players.

“I think I’ve learned how to be more of a leader, and learned how to take on adversity better,” Victor said. “(Going against good teams), you learn how to grow individually, but also as a team. You really learn how to come together.”

Added John, the oldest by five minutes, “At the D-I level, competition breeds competition. When you go against these kind of teams, it makes you better, too.”

Senior running back and wide receiver Paul Holyfield, Jr., has a similar sermon for the underclassmen — albeit phrased a bit differently.

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“I tell them D-I is no joke,” said Holyfield, 17. “If you take it lightly, someone’s gonna punch you in the mouth and wake you up to that. Sadly, it does happen to some people; but I’ll tell them to keep playing every down as if it’s your last down. Because the first game you ever play could be the last game you ever play.

“Then you’ll do great. Age doesn’t matter, because high school is high school,” Holyfield said.

That last pearl of wisdom is one reason why Chaminade, as a team, doesn’t mind being an underdog or assuming it has no chance to win even with a typically demanding schedule like the one this season. The Eagles open with defending (2019) City Section champion Birmingham on Aug. 27, then expect to have rugged encounters with Cathedral Catholic High of San Diego, and Liberty High of Bakersfield, before facing the usual blocks of granite in the Mission League like Alemany, Notre Dame High and Bishop Amat High in La Puente.

The demands in the pursuit of excellence never change at Chaminade. So you either adapt or crumble.

“We’re always gonna challenge our guys,” Croson said. “High school may be the only time you play football; so let’s see what the top looks like.”