“Everything must change, nothing stays the same,” has been the lament of many a philosopher, poet, song stylist — and school athletic departments, where players all matriculate to different educational levels and coaches don’t always stay in the same place for a career.
Still, San Fernando High was jolted in July when Coach Robert Garcia decided to step down. Garcia and his wife had opened a family restaurant in the Valley, and Garcia said the business responsibilities had become too large to give the football program his full attention.
It was an unexpected loss for the Tigers. Garcia took over the program in 2012 as a walk-on coach and immediately turned a program that had stumbled through consecutive 3-7 seasons into champions, winning back-to-back City Section Division II titles. He also won a title in 2017, this time in Division I. Garcia only had one losing fall season in his eight years here.
“When I heard he was going it was a huge shock; he’s one of the best coaches in the area, and one of the best San Fernando’s had in a very long time,” said new Tigers Coach Jose Fuentes.
“When I spoke with Garcia, I told him, ‘you know the size of the shoes you’re leaving me to fill?’”
Fuentes isn’t just commenting on Garcia’s legacy; he’s also talking about the legacy of Tigers football, which won its first of eight LA City football titles in 1937. The upcoming 2021 fall season doesn’t portend to be an easy one. San Fernando has a small roster in the 30s, (although more players could become available after going through COVID-19 protocols and practicing at least 10 days in pads), and fewer returning players than it had counted on.
But Fuentes has also been an assistant and junior varsity coach at San Fernando since 2014. The school’s legacy — and what it means to the City of San Fernando — is well understood and important to him. Even if 2021 is “a rebuilding year,” Fuentes is not staggered by the weight of yearly expectations.
“It’s going to be challenging, but it’s going to be great. We are rebuilding, but we’re taking our time. And these kids are very positive and up to the challenge,” Fuentes said.
“We’re realistic; we have to be. But [the coaches] have talked to the kids about this from the first day; that people in the Valley are saying, ‘the big dog has a wounded leg.’ So (his team is) fully aware. They know emotions will run high, that they have to stay disciplined and stick with the game plan whether it’s working or not.”
“They’re very tough kids,” Fuentes said, with a big smile. “That’s the thing I love about this area — how prideful and deep the roots are in this area. These kids just want a fair fight. Just let us fight. Doesn’t matter if we win or lose, let us fight.”
As previously noted, Fuentes — who may start an incoming freshman, Marcello Aguilar, at quarterback — plans to continue the style of play of Garcia and other coaches through the years at San Fernando: no-fuss, no-frills, big-boy power football.
“I love to see a 7-8 minute drive that ends in a touchdown,” the head coach said. “It doesn’t get better than that. I know this is a ‘new era’ of football, with quick scores. But if you can break a defense down, and take 7-8 minutes doing it, it’s discouraging.
“I know it’s not always going to be like that. But that’s going to be our foundation. We’ll try to punch you in the mouth with straight-ahead football, and let’s see what you’ve got.”
Of course, the uncertainty and fluidity of the COVID-19 pandemic could still upend everything. City Section officials say the Los Angeles Unified School District could cancel games and declare a “no-contest” if it deems there are not enough healthy players available; those games can be re-scheduled to both teams agree. And even though masks are optional for coaches and players in outside venues, they will still be required for spectators.
A district spokesperson said LAUSD “will follow all Los Angeles County Department of Public Health guidelines.”
But the Tigers Senior Tigers like Gus Castrejon and Martin Mendoza expect to play a complete fall schedule. And they expect to be competitive in a tough Valley Mission League that includes Canoga Park, Reseda and long-time rival Sylmar among others.
“We have a lot of pride here,” Castrejon said. “And we have the resources and the opportunities to build up the program for the future. People come to San Fernando to win.”
“I’m not gonna call this a ‘rebuilding year,’ added Mendoza. “Coach Garcia was a great coach; I was about 10 when I first met him. It [hurts] he’s not here for my senior year, but it’s not a ‘rebuilding year.’ We’ve still got the same players, the same things we learned. It’s still the same style. Everyone’s out here to show we still give that 110% when we play. It’s our motto.”
More fuel for San Fernando’s fire will come in the season opener against visiting Chavez High at 7 p.m. It’s the first-ever regular season meeting for the two schools. Players on both teams know each other, and the desire for bragging rights is a strong one.
“It’s going to be real fun on Friday with people in the stands for both sides,” said Tigers senior Isaac Venegas. “It will get everyone more hyped for the game.”
Added senior Jorge Soriano, 17, “We want to show everybody that even though we’ve lost some people, we’re still the Tigers. We still play our football. And we want to win.”