In January, after John Aponte resigned as football coach at Wilmington Banning, players began to scatter. It took almost two months before defensive coordinator Raymond Grajeda was named head coach.
By then, eight players had left for rival Carson. Most figured Banning was done, and you could stick a fork in the 2017 season.
Fast forward to last week in the Marine League. The Pilots defeated San Pedro 21-14 to improve to 6-3 and stand as the potential No. 4 seed for the City Section Open Division playoffs.
“My mission was to compete at the top,” Grajeda said. “Anybody and everybody said I was crazy. ‘You should take a year to develop players.’ Everybody doubted us. The only people not shocked are our kids.”
And guess which team 12-time City champion Banning is playing on Friday in its regular-season finale on the road? Yes, the 11-time City champion Carson Colts with all the ex-Banning players on their roster.
“We saw them at a passing tournament,” Grajeda said. “It was like coaching my team. We’re so close to Carson. We see them on weekends. It’s family. We only hate Carson for one game out of the year. I rub elbows with these guys all the time. We eat at the same places.”
Grajeda is proud of the way his players have responded, competed and moved on, rallying around each other. Against San Pedro, junior quarterback Jakob Garcia passed for 186 yards and three touchdowns.
Remembering the uncertainty of last spring, Grajeda said, “That could break any program and has. All we did is pick up the pieces and went to work. We were in the shadow and it made us hungry.”
All-City receiver Fernando Corona has nine touchdowns. Senior linebacker Josh Guerra is averaging nearly seven tackles a game. The Banning players who stayed and put their trust in Grajeda are being rewarded for their hard work and loyalty.
“We moved on,” Grajeda said. “They moved on. No hard feelings.”
In the final week of the regular season, there’s some big games that will decide league championships. The City Section playoff brackets will be announced on Saturday, followed by the Southern Section brackets on Sunday.
Venice will play at Fairfax on Friday night to decide the Western League championship. Venice Coach Angelo Gasca lost his standout sophomore quarterback, Luca Diamont, before the season to a golf cart accident. His replacement, Dion Moore, a converted receiver, is one win away from pulling off an improbable league championship. Fairfax has come out of nowhere behind a stellar defense and the play of junior quarterback Scott Harris.
In the Southern Section, La Puente Bishop Amat will play at West Hills Chaminade to decide the Mission League title. In an attractive nonleague finale, Long Beach Poly will play at Gardena Serra.
In the Gold Coast League, Chatsworth Sierra Canyon will face Lancaster Paraclete at Antelope Valley College to decide the league title. Both teams could win Southern Section championships.
In the Sunbelt League, 8-1 Romoland Heritage is at 8-1 Paloma Valley. In the Angelus League, unbeaten La Cañada St. Francis faces a tough test against visiting L.A. Cathedral. In a battle of unbeaten teams, San Clemente is at Mission Viejo to decide the South Coast League title.
You’ll need to rent a helicopter and bring your smartphone and computer if you want to see all the top matchups on Friday night.