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Valley Christian loaded again for what figures to be a better season
By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter
VALLEY CHRISTIAN CRUSADERS
9-3 overall last season, 4-0 in the Olympic League, first place, lost to Linfield Christian 35-0 in the Northwest Division second round playoffs
28-28 overall last five seasons
Head coach: Woodie Grayson (fourth season, 21-14)
Lost 14 seniors out of 33 players from 2015 opening day roster
Last time missed the playoffs: 2012
Aug. 26 Gahr (3-7 overall last season)
Sept. 2 @ Bellflower (4-6)
Sept. 9 St. Margaret’s (9-3)
Sept. 16 @ Mayfair (7-4)
Sept. 23 @ Ontario Christian (6-5)
Sept. 30 St. Anthony (6-5)
Oct. 7 BYE
Oct. 14 @ Village Christian (5-5)
Oct. 21 Whittier Christian (3-7)
Oct. 28 Heritage Christian (5-6)
Nov. 4 @ Maranatha (7-5)
In each of his first three seasons as the Valley Christian High head coach, Woodie Grayson has improved the team’s record while sending his team to the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section divisional playoffs each time. Last season, the Crusaders ended the regular season with eight wins, the most since 2005. But V.C. also had a chance to enter the playoffs at 10-0 as its two regular season setbacks were by a combined five points. V.C. won its first four games and its last four prior to the playoffs en route to its first outright Olympic League title since 2009. Grayson still reflects on what could have been.
“Those five points probably cost us at least an extra round in the playoffs, having to face Linfield [Christian], who was the division favorite all year,” Grayson said. “The second round was tough for us, even though we had them at home. But I think if we beat Ontario Christian, losing to St. Anthony or not, probably gets us a better draw. I would say all in all, last season was very disappointing for us on the field even though we went 9-3. It was just disappointing in the fact that we lost those two games the way we did.”
The Crusaders were held scoreless until the fourth quarter against Ontario Christian High and were down 7-0 after three quarters before losing 14-12. The next week, V.C. led St. Anthony High 17-13 on the road heading into the fourth quarter before the Saints scored the lone touchdown in the final stanza for a 20-17 victory. Still, last season was V.C.’s best since going 10-2 in 2005 and since 2000, the Crusaders have won at least nine games six times.
“We were able to get off to a great start and we stumbled in a couple of games,” Grayson said. “And our non league schedule, to be able to bounce back and win league, was big for us. It was a big step for the program. But it was a mixed bag; it seemed like we never really were able to fully be who we thought we could be with the guys that we had on the roster versus the guys that we were able to put on the field at one time. It just never quite panned out for us to be able to hit on all cylinders.”
The one pleasant surprise for the Crusaders came from then-sophomore running back Gianni Hurd, a transfer from Lakewood High who had to sit out the first six games. When he became eligible, Hurd rushed for 1,037 yards on 94 carries and scored 17 touchdowns in six games, including seven against Templeton High in the first round of the playoffs.
“I don’t know that you ever expect it,” Grayson said of Hurd’s 2015 performance. “But let’s be honest; this is the state of California. We have some great, great running backs in the state. I’ve had guys put up those numbers in stretches before, going back to Mayfair with Mike Williams. Obviously what Gianni did last year in a stretch of six games was just amazing feat for a sophomore. But in all honesty, you have to credit those guys in front of him.”
Senior Dominic Paul, who added 332 yards and four touchdowns on the ground, is a great complement to Hurd and between the two, they will give the Crusaders a very dangerous rushing attack.
Also in the backfield will be juniors Darian Green, whom Grayson said would have been the go-to guy if Hurd wasn’t there, and Samuel Talavera. Grayson feels like he has a pretty good staple of running backs with three or four capable of rushing for over 1,000 yards.
At quarterback, V.C. will have to replace the graduated Jesse Smith (1,955 yards, 20 touchdowns, five interceptions) and junior Isaac Joseph will be called upon to be the starting signal caller this season. Joseph was Smith’s backup last season and appeared in six games and threw a touchdown pass at Heritage Christian High. Junior Jaylon Tucker would be Joseph’s backup.
“We did a good job of playing Isaac when we could versus just getting him only mop-up [time],” Grayson said. “He’s definitely the clear leader. There are some strengths that he has that Jesse doesn’t have. He’s played football for most of his life, so he’s more of a football player that plays quarterback. Jesse was purely a drop back passer who could run a little.”
The other offensive scoring threats and/or yardage gainers will be senior wide receivers Michael Polk and R.J. Van Kampen and junior wide receivers Quory Smith and Bailey Torres. Those four combined for 881 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Grayson says his receiving corps this season, overall, is faster than it was last season.
Protecting those skilled players and creating the holes for them will be senior left tackle Ravon Chambers, who was the Olympic League’s Offensive Lineman of the Year in 2015, senior center Zach Krosschell, a three-year starter, senior right guard Eric Schoonover, another three-year starter, junior left guard Robert Chatman, who started all 12 games last season and junior right tackle Tevita Makaafi.
The offensive line, which is the deepest position this season, will also have senior Austin Minnema, plus up to six other players that can easily be plugged in at any time.
“It’s exciting,” Grayson said about his experienced offense. “I’ve coached at other places and I’ve been fortunate at other places that we’ve seen our entire starting offensive line come back. What we were able to do on the ground, with that situation with an amazing line coming back…we were able to do a lot of things on the ground that were really special. Obviously we have to put in the work and we have to find a way to practice at a level that we’re capable of everyday.”
The same offensive linemen will also play on the defensive line with Chambers playing at the tackle position and Minnema and Schoonover playing at the end spots. The other tackle position is still yet to be determined. Van Kampen, as he was last season with his 99 tackles and nine interceptions, will once again be the leader of the secondary and will play free safety. Polk and Smith (26 tackles last season) will be starting cornerbacks. One of the top junior varsity players in the league last season, junior Garret Williams, will also see some time here, probably at strong safety, as will Hurd and Paul.
“If he does [get nine interceptions again], that means that guys weren’t paying attention to what he did last year,” Grayson said of Van Kampen. “R.J. does a great job of being prepared and has a sense of where the ball is. He’s a ball hog.”
Rounding out the defense will be the senior Jalen Hines, juniors Gavin Fua and Jake Leue, Green and Talavera as linebackers.
The first three opponents will be different than the first three of last season, but foes that the Crusaders have faced in the past. V.C. has not faced Gahr High since 2007, a 62-42 loss. V.C. last played Bellflower High in 2007 also, a 33-13 loss and the Crusaders had a home and home series with St. Margaret’s High in 2009 and 2010 with each team winning at home. Last season’s 14-7 win over Mayfair High snapped a five-game losing streak to the Monsoons. But V.C. still hasn’t scored more than 14 points against Mayfair in the last six meetings. In the past 18 meetings with its longtime rival, Ontario Christian, V.C. holds an 11-7 advantage but is 6-3 in the Inland Empire. In league action, the Crusaders have won the past seven against Heritage Christian High, which also includes when it was known as Los Angeles Baptist High. Last season’s final game against Maranatha High decided the league title. But Grayson is quick to remind us that things change quickly in the Olympic League. In the last four seasons, there have been three different league champions.
“We looked at our preseason schedule from the previous two seasons and figured we have a good team coming back and we need to upgrade our schedule,” Grayson said. “You change a team here and you change a team there; you don’t change them all at the same time. Gahr is going to be a tough game for us. They’re always athletic. I don’t know if that’s the way we want to open the season, but we did it and so it’s here.
“We won’t see four straight games like that in the Olympic League,” Grayson later added on his last four games in September. “And obviously with a five-team league, you have to prepare yourself to win every week. If you drop a week [in league], you’re looking at second place.”
Two seasons ago for its homecoming game, V.C. outlasted Whittier Christian High 67-44 and is 12-3 against the Heralds since 1998, including a three-game winning streak. Against the four current league opponents, V.C. is 11-0 on homecoming night. The last homecoming loss came in 2013, a 46-7 loss to San Diego-based Francis Parker High.
V.C. will be situated in the new Division 9 this season along with 28 other schools including Maranatha and Mayfair. While the Crusaders won’t see those two opponents in the first round, they might see Norwalk High out of the Suburban League, a playoff team of the past nine seasons.
“The best thing I can say after looking at the division is that we don’t have to see Linfield which has ended our season the last two years,” Grayson said. “Obviously we’re still in the same division with Riverside Poly. I understand what CIF is trying to do, but I don’t know that in year one that they achieved exactly what they wanted to do. I don’t understand how a school of 600 students is competitively equitable to a school with 3,000 students.”
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