Matt Baca of Chino Hills Ayala has already mastered one of the most important skills necessary to becoming a top athlete: blocking out miserable memories.
A year ago, he was sacked 72 times as the quarterback for an 0-10 football team.
For 10 consecutive weeks, from the first snap to the last, he never left the field, despite taking a physical and emotional pounding.
Once the season ended, he wiped the slate clean and started over.
"I just forgot about it," he said. "It was a new season, a new coaching staff, a whole new offense."
Baca spent the off-season nearly living in the school's weight room. He took lessons from private quarterback coaches and at camps. He had long conversations with the Bulldogs' second-year coach, Tom Inglima, and decided in his senior season, he was going to be different.
"I just changed," he said. "I changed as a person. I changed my appearance. I stood up straighter, threw the ball harder. I became a better leader."
In his last three games, all victories, Baca has passed for 1,005 yards and 12 touchdowns. He led one of the most remarkable comebacks of the season Friday night, when Ayala rallied from a 33-14 deficit in the fourth quarter to win, 34-33, over La Verne Damien and improve to 2-0 in the Sierra League and 4-3 overall.
"Who would have thought Ayala could be 2-0 in league?" Baca said.
And that same offensive line that couldn't protect him last year didn't allow Damien a single sack.
Baca, at 6 feet 1 and 205 pounds, is a three-year varsity starter finally receiving some well-deserved recognition.
"I coached Carson Palmer at Santa Margarita, and Matt Baca outworks anybody around," Inglima said. "He had a lot of the physical tools. What I thought he needed to work on was his leadership role. Now he's playing with emotion and passion. He's come out of his shell a lot in his personality."
Said Baca: "Last year, I was a little quiet. I didn't speak up. I wasn't a leader. I wasn't there yet. This year, I've changed. I've tried to model myself after Brett Favre. After a touchdown, he runs down, screaming and yelling. That's me. I'm being a leader."
There aren't too many quarterbacks or teams that could have pulled off what Ayala did against Damien.
Ayala was trailing, 33-20, with 2:13 left when Damien lost the ball on a fumble on Ayala's one-yard line. Baca put together a 99-yard drive, hitting David Quiroga with an eight-yard touchdown pass with 27 seconds left.
Down, 33-27, the Bulldogs tried an onside kick. Everyone lined up to the left, but kicker Brian Bracci sent the ball to the right and recovered it himself on the Damien 49. Baca did the rest, completing three passes that carried the Bulldogs to the two-yard line, then connecting with Quiroga for a tying touchdown with five seconds left. Bracci's extra point won it. Baca finished with 364 yards passing and five touchdowns.
"It was the most incredible game I've been involved in," Inglima said. "It was a miracle."
Added Baca: "It was amazing. We watched it on film and still had chills. . . . It's what high school football is about."
Baca has been forced to learn five offenses during his four years of high school. He has had five different offensive coordinators. And yet, even when he felt sorry for himself, he kept his focus on the future, believing there would come a day he'd get the chance to show what he could do. It's arrived.
"I'm just seeing receivers open and this is what a quarterback dreams of," he said. "I've been working to get to that level. The thing is, my coaches are letting me audible, letting me look at the defense."
The football team's turnaround has led to a different atmosphere on campus.
"It's awesome," Baca said. "People walk up to you, 'You guys are actually good.' There are tons of students at the games."
Important life lessons were learned during that 0-10 season, such as "never give up."
But Baca said, "I wouldn't recommend anyone go through an 0-10 season. It's horrible."
ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS
Baca goes from zero to hero at Ayala
Bulldogs quarterback overcomes mental and physical torment of an 0-10 season with a 2-0 start in the Sierra League and a 4-3 record overall, including a starring role in Friday's comeback from a 33-14 deficit.
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