A little more than a year ago at this time, the La Cañada High football team was undergoing its fair share of tumult.
Head coach Ryan Zerbel left in early June to take a job closer to his Glendora home and then-six-year assistant coach and defensive coordinator Jason Sarceda took over in a hurry.
A sudden departure followed by a quick hire brought about a tough 0-10 season in which Sarceda was never able to catch up.
Fast forward a year and the program has found its stability and is talking about leadership and growth.
“We’re way ahead of where we were last year, that’s for darn sure,” Sarceda said. “These guys have gotten better and a lot stronger. When we started last year, I had one, maybe two guys who could bench 200 [pounds] and one or two guys who could squat over 300.
“You look at our team now and we have a slew of guys over 300 and 400 pounds. Those are the things behind the scenes that got us stronger.”
The need to be stronger, sturdier and tougher wasn’t just something Sarceda observed, but an idea his team embraced.
“Right after last season, we realized we weren’t as strong or as fast as other teams,” offensive/defensive lineman Eugene Hong said. “We realized we needed to hit the weight room as fast as possible. Strength is as basic as you can get and we were missing it. We love the work now. We love the grind.”
Summer No. 2 for Sarceda also appears focused on the basics.
Though the coach has a small squad that’s unlikely to reach beyond the mid-30s, he’s also much further along in the process of preparing for the 2018 season, which begins Aug. 17 when the Spartans travel to take on Hoover High.
“Right now, it’s all about the fundamentals,” Sarceda said. “That’s what we’ve been teaching; we’re going back to the basics. We’ve been working on things like tackling and blocking and we’ve been working on our offensive scheme. We’ve also made some adjustments on defense.”
Those differences were immediately noticed.
“We know a lot more of our playbook right now than we did last year,” said senior Matt Bromley, a defensive back who is battling for the starting spot at quarterback with junior Walker Baggett. “At this time last year, we were just cracking the surface of the playbook. Now, we know the depths of it.”
Through the toughest of times last season, Sarceda said it was key to have leadership, particularly senior leadership.
The coach is looking for a new batch of young men to take over the stewardship of the team prior to his squad heading to a team-bonding camp at UC Santa Barbara, scheduled for July 24.
“We’re going to find those guys before our camp,” Sarceda said. “It’s a nice four-day retreat camp and it helps to get some bonding and team building, but I want to know who the leaders are before then.”
So, how would a player prove they’re a leader?
“I’m asking guys to step up. I’m giving them extra duties and options so that they can get together and get better. I want to see who rises to the top. It’s a matter of small leadership things and seeing if they do it first before asking a young freshman to do it. Being in the weight room and seeing if they’re directing.