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HMG H.S. Football Preview: Valley Christian Back in Action With New Coach and a Deeper, More Athletic Team

August 20, 2021

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

VALLEY CHRISTIAN DEFENDERS

last season

31-17 overall last five seasons

Head coach: Kevin McCarthy (first season)

Last time missed the playoffs: 2018

2021 SCHEDULE

Aug. 20 @ St. Paul (0-4 overall last season)

Aug. 26 Santa Rosa Academy (1-3)

Sept. 3 @ Crean Lutheran (2-4)

Sept. 10 Beckman (1-4)

Sept. 17 @ Ontario Christian (4-0)

Sept. 24 BYE

Oct. 1 Artesia (0-1)

Oct. 8 Village Christian (1-2)

Oct. 15 @ Whittier Christian (1-3)

Oct. 22 @ Heritage Christian (2-1)

Oct. 29 Maranatha (3-0)

Kevin McCarthy becomes V.C.’s fourth head coach in as many seasons and seventh since the legendary Mike Wunderley took his 2002 team to the Division IX championship game in his final season. The Defenders opted not to play this past spring as several football players also compete in spring sports. In 2019, under the tutelage of former head coach Bill Garner, V.C. went 7-4 and won the Olympic League before falling to Pasadena High 47-31 in Division 11 first-round playoffs.

McCarthy had been an assistant coach for V.C. the past seven seasons and took over the new position when Garner stepped down due to personal reasons in the preseason of the 2020 season.

“The program is 85 years in the making,” McCarthy said. “There’s a lot of tradition here. The ease of transition did come by knowing the players, also having much of the staff stay on. We didn’t go through a big transition initially. Coach [Kirk] Diego, he and I have been together for 15 years. But the transition had been pretty smooth, having been here for that period of time and having had some success, winning CIF in 2016.”

Of the 34 players on varsity this season, 13 of them were in the program in 2019, either playing on the varsity team or the junior varsity squad. In fact, McCarthy says this season’s team is deeper, more athletic and adds that it’s the best team that he has seen athletically since the 2016 team.

OFFENSE

Two seasons ago, V.C. put together 320 points and scored at least 31 points in five games, winning four of them. Historically, scoring has never been a problem and this season, the Defenders will have a trio of quarterbacks to choose from, including senior Colin Abrahams, who was 35 for 57 with 513 yards and four touchdowns in 2019. Seniors Rocco Caldarella, who caught 32 passes for 404 yards and scored three touchdowns as a sophomore and Logan Lemonnier, a transfer from Cypress High, are the other two candidates. McCarthy said all three have different skill sets and he isn’t ready to name a true starter.

“The new kid throws the ball really well and Rocco is one of our best athletes,” McCarthy said. “As far as running the ball, we’ve had some success with our quarterbacks running the ball [and] he’s pretty good at that.”

Speaking of running the ball, senior John Nelson, who has been with the program all four years, will likely be the team’s main running back, according to McCarthy. However, look for junior Aaron Chang, sophomore Dylan Sawai and freshman JoJo Apisala to see a lot of touches. Catching the ball will be Caldarella, seniors Ellis Negron and Carson Slager (22 receptions, 260 yards, one touchdown in 2019) and juniors Nick Bozanic, Micah Maurer and Kaden Struiksma.

McCarthy added that the team is deep in both the running back and wide receiver positions and that ideally, the run/pass ratio will be 50-50.

The one area that isn’t as complete right now are the two tackle positions on the offensive line. Senior Jesse Perez, who stands at 6’5” and is 280 pounds, will be at center while 6’2”, 270 pound senior Christopher Chang will occupy right guard with sophomore Jack Van Hofwegen playing on the left side. Junior Jacob Smith most likely will get one of the tackle spots while the other one is still up in the air. But sophomore Max DeMaster is also in the mix.

“My goal, which is kind of the joke amongst the people here, was that I wanted to get to 75 players in the program,” McCarthy said. “And we’re in good shape. We’re up to about 65 with the j.v. and the varsity. What we have is a depth of quality and we’re getting more bodies out. We’ll start the season with probably 31 or 32 varsity players, which is how many we had the year we won [the CIF championship]. It’s a good position to be in.”

DEFENSE

When one sees a V.C. game, most likely it’s going to be a high-scoring affair. While the offense rarely struggles to put points on the board, the defense gives up a lot. In 2019, the Defenders allowed 297 points with at least 34 in the first, third and fifth games. However, the defense can show signs of an excellent game as V.C. yielded six points each in the second and fourth games of that season.

Junior Aaron Chang and Negron will lock down the two defensive end positions while senior Lee Kingwood and Christopher Chang will be the two interior linemen. The linebackers will be Apisala, Maurer, Sawai and Slager (29 tackles in 2019) while the secondary will see Bozanic and Nelson as cornerbacks and senior Sam Reeves and junior Nick Turnbow as outside safeties and Caldarella in the middle (34 tackles, four interceptions in 2019).

“I think our defense is probably ahead of our offense as far as teaching,” McCarthy said. “Randy Williams does such a good job and offensively, we never know what we’re going to be until we get contact.”

SCHEDULE

Had there been a full season in 2020, the Defenders were slated to open at home against San Marino High before travelling to Lancaster High and Portola High. This season, V.C. begins on the road against St. Paul High then hosts Menifee-based Santa Rosa Academy before going on the road to face Crean Lutheran High. The fourth game is at Beckman High and V.C. has never played the latter three in school history and has not squared off against St. Paul in at least 23 years. The fifth game of the season is the rivalry contest at Ontario Christian High where V.C. holds a 12-9 advantage since 1998 but has lost the last two against the Knights.

Although the coaches have changed over time, the final game before Olympic League play begins is a throwback game of two of the top former coaches in the history of the CIF-SS. V.C. entertains Artesia High for the first time in at least over 23 years and if those two schools faced each other in the 1980s or early 1990s, it would have been Wunderley against Artesia legend Norm Flowers.

“St. Paul is a huge step us for us,” McCarthy said. “They’re a Division 5 team and they were in the CIF final two years ago: traditionally very good. But the challenge with coming out of Covid was just trying to find a week zero game. I really wanted to keep that week five bye to give us a week of rest before league starts. I looked around, looked around, looked around and St. Paul was available. We might be biting a little off more than we can chew. But we’re going to take a shot.”

Since 2002, V.C., the school of champions, has won the Olympic League eight times and has finished in second place seven times. Over that time, the Defenders have compiled a 51-18 league mark and went undefeated seven times. Of those 18 league losses, four have come to Maranatha High and Village Christian High and another three to Whittier Christian High.

“Heritage Christian is always really good and Maranatha is always really good,” McCarthy said. “They both have gone through coaching changes, but I don’t expect any type of drop-off from them. Village Christian has been improving and Whittier Christian, again, is competitive with us every year. We’ve been pretty lucky with winning the league five out of the last six years that I’ve been here and most of that is a bi-product of just preparation. But any one of those schools could win league this year with the two coaching changes at Heritage and Maranatha. There’s no telling what those schools are going to look like. For all intense purposes, we’re going through a coaching change also.”

HOMECOMING

The last time Valley Christian hosted Village Christian for its homecoming, which came in 2015, the Defenders came away with a 58-6 victory and since 2005, Valley Christian has won all four homecoming games against the Crusaders. Since 1999, Valley Christian holds a 19-2 record on homecoming night, losing to Francis Parker High out of San Diego 46-7 in 2013 and Heritage Christian 25-10 in 2018. And of the 21 homecoming games since 1999, three have been against teams outside the Olympic League.

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