Among the recurring “isms” about football that’s guaranteed to bubble up during a season is this one: it’s never too early — or too late — to have a pivotal moment.
The Chavez Learning Academies is approaching one this week.
The Eagles (2-2, 1-0) are now playing their East Valley League schedule. And on Friday, Sept. 24, they travel to Van Nuys to face a team which, frankly, has constantly given them fits: the Grant High Lancers.
You can call Grant (1-3, 0-0) the Eagle’s kryptonite, their Achilles heel or whatever. Simply put, the Lancers have dominated the Eagles in their league matchups since Chavez began playing varsity football in 2011, winning eight straight games until the Eagles broke through with a victory in the 2020 spring season that was limited by the pandemic.
Chavez Coach Rodrigo Nunez has plenty of memories of the Grant games, and very few of them are fond ones.
“Grant’s been that one opponent…I mean there were a couple of times we went into the game with them undefeated, and they knocked us off of our rails,” Nunez said.
“And somehow Grant always seems to have a week off prior to playing us,” he noted with a wry smile.
Winning that 2020 game, even under the conditions imposed by COVID protocols, was a needed breakthrough for the Eagles — even if not everyone at Chavez is sure how to count it.
“A win’s a win — but it was not the same as a regular season [win],” Nunez said.
Even the players had a mixed reaction.
“I would (count it); it was a full game,” said quarterback Vincent Fino, 17, a senior. “But this year could be special if we can keep it going.”
“Since I was a freshman, it seems like we had them in the beginning of the game, then something goes wrong,” said Alex Ramirez, 17, a senior offensive and defensive lineman. “Last year we won, but I don’t really consider it a ‘W’ since there were no fans there. The environment wasn’t the same, so I don’t really consider it a game.”
Friday’s game will definitely count — not only for each team’s sense of pride and development, but also toward the league championship. The Lancers may be struggling — their only victory so far came against Sylmar on Sept. 10 — but the East Valley race also seems a more wide open race than it has been in several years.
“It does,” Nunez said. “[Naturally] we’re hoping to be, at the end, that team on top. But it’s one game at a time. And this one always seems to be one of the tougher games we have here.”
Left unspoken is the other elephant in the room: Arleta High, which annually contends for the league title. Even if every team feels it is capable of winning, it’s doubtful an outright champion will have two league losses. So the winner of this game has an inside track while the other team will be in scramble mode through the remainder of the regular season.
It’s one reason why Grant has the total attention of Chavez. There’s no “smack talk” or “chirping” going on; the players and coaches do not want to provide the Lancers any additional motivation.
“Grant’s always been an obstacle that we weren’t able to go over until last year,” said running back and linebacker Alejandro Rafael, 17, a senior. “I take [the game] more to heart for the fact that they are in our league. I do respect them; they’re a very good team. But so are we.”
This will be the second major emotional contest for Chavez in the season’s first five weeks. The Eagles opened up against San Fernando High on Aug. 20, a game they had been trying to arrange for a while, and they upset San Fernando on the Tigers home field. It was a win that left Chavez with a bit of an emotional hangover that showed in the loss to Kennedy High the following week.
“We’d be lying if we said there wasn’t one,” Nunez said, looking back briefly at the San Fernando game. “The kids all know each other, they went to grade and middle school together. It was an emotional win and it was special.”
But the Eagles were also grounded by more COVID protocols. Nunez said two players tested positive for the virus and the team had to be quarantined for 10 days, unable to practice or play. It cost them their scheduled game against Franklin High of Los Angeles, and then left them with only one day of preparation for the game against Lincoln High of Los Angeles — which, predictably, was a loss.
“This is the third COVID break we’ve had to come back from,” Nunez said.
But facing and handling adversity is nothing new at Chavez. Neither is learning as you go. There are several players like Rafael, and teammate Gabriel Velasquez, who hadn’t played organized tackle football until they got to high school. But they worked their way up from learning how to properly put on their shoulder pads to starting on the varsity. They’ve learn to respect teams but fear none, and to be there for their teammates.
“[Football] is family; we help one another,” said Velasquez, 18, a senior who plays fullback and linebacker. “If there’s a problem, we talk about it and we fix it. That’s what a family does. Because no one’s perfect.”
The Eagles — who restored their momentum in their victory last week against Poly — certainly aren’t thinking about perfection on Friday: just winning. Just going to Grant on Friday, playing a tough game against a tough opponent and finding a way to come out on top. Just putting the weight of history and the ghosts of past defeats further in the past.
It may, indeed, be their turn now. But the Eagles know they have to prove it.
“I don’t want to go in there thinking in any way it will be an easy game,” Fino said. “It won’t be. We’ll have to work for everything.”