There’s no secret to developing good football teams. Talent is needed, of course. But it’s often the willingness of teammates to keep working on and molding that collective talent into something pristine.
Campbell Hall High School has been putting its collective talent, and the hard work that went into shaping it, on display each week this fall. And they’re getting rave reviews.
The Vikings — still unbeaten (8-0) after outlasting Rio Hondo Prep of Arcadia on Oct. 8 — are a threat to capture one of the three automatic playoff berths from the Southern Section’s Gold Coast League (Paraclete High of Lancaster and Sierra Canyon High already have the other two). And they are doing it by employing a high-scoring passing attack that is a delight to watch and discouraging to try and defend.
Not that Coach Dennis Keyes is letting his players get ahead or become full of themselves.
“For me, it’s not focusing on being undefeated or buying into the hype,” Keyes said. “That’s what I preach to the kids, to keep them on board.
“Before we started this season, I told them this team has the talent and ability to go far. How we go about doing that is based on how we handle business in practice and every week. Our method and mantra this year is being 1-0 each week. We’re not looking ahead…we want to be 1-0 that week. So we try to stay in the moment that way.”
But keep him talking long enough and Keyes will mention how proud he is of this group of players who understand what’s possible if they can keep winning, and are willing to put in the time and effort needed to give them every chance of achieving their goals.
“This team is very close — you can see it,” the coach said. “You can also see all the time they put in during the offseason to get better, away from what we were able to do [in organized practices].
“[During the pandemic] they would get together, go somewhere, and work together in groups. And it shows in how they play, and how they respond to adversity, how they pull each other up. It’s a mature group of young men that understands what it takes to be successful — on and off the field. This is a group of kids that is not only kicking butt on the field, but in the classroom as well and in the community.”
Offensive and defensive lineman Jaden Williams, 17, a senior, also articulates the progression and maturity of this year’s team.
“When I first came in as a freshman [in 2018], it was a good team that year, too. We went 8-2; unfortunately we didn’t make the playoffs even with the stars we had, like Jonny Garnett, Johnny Hawkins, Chaz Cotton and others,” Williams said. “My sophomore year [the team] wasn’t as strong as it should have been. Many kids weren’t serious enough, myself included.
“But coming into my junior and senior years I turned it around with football and became dead serious about it because I want to play in college. My junior year we really didn’t have a season — four games. This year….I feel everyone’s more serious about it. And we’re more united; we’re pretty close off the field. And that’s made us even better.”
Some of those friendships were formed long before high school. Quarterback Isaiah Sepand and wide receiver Kian Salehi, both juniors, have known each other since elementary school. Salehi said Sepand was the one who got him interested in playing football.
“We started playing flag football (in the seventh grade), and it went from there,” said Salehi, 17.
One of the best things about his friend and teammate, Salehi said, is how well Sepand keeps the offense clicking.
“Always know with him, the play is never over,” Salehi said. “He doesn’t [often] get sacked; he’s very mobile. So keep finding a way to get open. And he’ll make sure to get you the ball.”
Sepand, also 17, possesses a strong right arm that he’s willing to unleash at any time. And the connection he has with Salehi and other receivers like Blake Cotton, Christopher Hammond and Zach Plotkin seems to border on the uncanny.
But there’s nothing mystical about it, the quarterback said. It’s just the result of putting in the time with his teammates to create a rhythm they can all swing to.
“After [regular] practice we take some extra time, me and Blake, sometimes Kian and work on routes by ourselves,” Sepand said. “It’s about getting the timing right. And if we time it up correctly, we can destroy a lot of defenses.”
They’ve seen a multitude of pass defenses this season, from exotic blitz packages to double or hidden coverages aimed to take away specific receivers. But, so far, the Vikings have been able to adjust, Sepand said.
“Teams have tried almost everything,” he said. “But we have four great receivers in Chris, Blake, Kian and Zach. [Defenses] have tried to [ double-team] Blake, but once you move one guy, another guy will come open. And if you start sending more pressure, we can go to the short, quick passing game.
“We have multiple weapons,” Sepand said.
Cotton, 17, a senior, said it took about a “season” to feel locked in with Sepand and the offense as a whole. “And this season it’s paying off,” he said. But it did take some getting used to how well and how hard Sepand can throw.
“A line drive. It’s pretty fast,” Cotton said of a Sepand pass. “I know his arm is strong and he likes to put some fire on the pass. I just expect that every time now.”
The Vikings will try and keep rolling on the road against Viewpoint High of Calabasas on Friday, Oct. 15 before concluding the regular season at home against Brentwood High of Los Angeles on Oct. 29. And they will need to win both games to get that automatic berth since they won’t be playing either Paraclete or Sierra Canyon.
So Keyes certainly won’t have his team basking in any premature glory.
Not that he’s worried.
“They realize they haven’t done anything yet,” the coach said.