(M. Terry / SFVS) Ready To Go — Hunters seniors (l-r) Kayden Collins, Anthony Villalobos and Marqas Reece expect Canoga Park’s 2021 football season to finally kick off this weekend.

Canoga Park High did not lose its 2021 football season opener against Canyon High of Canyon Country last week.

It didn’t win it either.

The Hunters never got to play the Aug. 20 game, through no fault of their own. Canyon canceled the game because the school had not yet received all the test results of those who were in close contact with a student-athlete that had tested positive for COVID-19.

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“We were told about three-ish in the afternoon on Friday,” said Head Coach David Perez. “Our JV was able to make it out there, and was still able to play a game…I feel for the [varsity] kids, all the hard work they had put in during the summer — waking up early, dealing with the paperwork [to practice and play]. It was just very unfortunate.

“But all we can do is get ready for the next one. I’ve always told players, ‘You can’t dwell on what you can’t fix and what you can’t control.’”

The Hunters weren’t by themselves. Reseda High’s opening game against Narbonne High of Harbor City was canceled due to COVID-19 protocols. And the Regents have learned that scheduled contest this week against Dorsey High of Los Angeles this week has also been canceled.

In part because the pandemic — spiking again in the Southland due to the Delta variant — is disrupting schools and athletics (but not yet forcing the closure of campuses), LA County health officials will resume mandatory weekly testing of high school athletes for COVID-19, starting Sept. 1. And all football players will be tested regardless of vaccination status.

The silver lining for Canoga Park is easy to spot. The Hunters will now open their season — all things willing — on Friday, Aug. 27, against Garfield High of Los Angeles, and do so before their home fans.

The players are happy to follow Perez’ advice about moving on.

“It was definitely disappointing,” said senior wide receiver and defensive back Marqas Reece about not playing last week. “But we have to look at the upside: we’re all hungry for the game this week. To play in front of the home crowd is always good for a first game; it gets the energy going.

“It would have been cool [to play Canyon] but being in front of your own fans is always special.”

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Another senior, Anthony Villalobos, is just eager to be on the field in a meaningful game. Villalobos is one of the remaining players from the Hunters’ 2019 team that won the City Section Division II championship which, he indicates, has brought about a new level of respect for the program.

“It was a change, a huge change,” said 17-year-old fullback and middle linebacker. “We proved that we could win a championship, and we proved [this spring that the Hunters could compete in the Valley Mission League] even though it was only four games. But that championship was a good starting point for the coming years.”

Senior two-way starter Kayden Collins, 16, doesn’t have a ring from that 2019 season. But the main collective of players on the 2021 team, he said, have known each other for a long time from playing on the same youth teams. And a definitive bond has been formed.

“Any event we go to, anything we do, we’re all together. Our chemistry is off the charts,” said Collins who Perez said is drawing interest from colleges.

 “The 2019 team was a family; the only thing is, [many of those players have] left and carried on with their lives. Everyone who’s still here, we’ve all known each other since we were young. We still wear our Pop Warner jerseys [under their Canoga Park jerseys during practice]. The connection is there.”

Sports teams in general, and football teams in particular, are notorious for calling their teams “family.”  But Reece, 16, who transferred here from Granada Hills Charter High, says the use of the term here is not overused.

“I didn’t play high school sports until my junior year (last year), although I had played Pop Warner and club sports to get me ready. But when I came, everybody welcomed me with open arms,” he said.

“The biggest thing I had to learn was [matching] the intensity of the competition. But now I’m more ready for it.”

Villalobos also feels this year’s team can be a “special group.”

“Most of us are coming [to the team] from the spring. But we already have chemistry coming into the fall, which gives me confidence,” he said. “We get along so well. And we’re ready to play as a unit.”

Which is why the Hunters are fervent about seeing how they compare to another opponent. They have an excellent one in Garfield, which dominated Montebello High in its opener last week, 41-0.

“We scrimmaged with them last spring,” Perez said. “I really admire Coach Lorenzo [Hernandez] and what he’s done with their program and in the community. He’s a great coach and they have a great program.”

Perez said he has been at Canoga Park for 20 years, but this is his first opportunity to be a head coach. All games are special, but none more so than first games. Perhaps people will one day speak of the Hunters football fortunes in the same terms he spoke of Garfield.

That only comes over time. And hopefully, the clock finally starts for this group of Hunters this week. 

“I always tell the kids that we have to create memories,” the coach said. “Stories we can tell our friends, families, and later on to our children. To learn from each other and mature fast.

“Everybody wants to win. But it’s also about what you can accomplish, whom you’re successful with. The biggest goal is being successful together.”