Etched in the foyer of a stone building that is St. Monica High School is a reminder: “Founded 1939.” Down the block stands stout St. Monica Church, its architecture reminiscent of the early 1900s. Seemingly ageless trees hug the campus border.
The entire block St. Monica High calls home drips with tradition. Its grammar school students wear traditional uniforms and every student attends a daily religion class. Inside the main building are plaques and memorabilia encompassing its 50-year history.
But while the roots of St. Monica reach back half a century, its football team will have to wait a few years before realizing its own contribution to the Mariner tradition. Because only now has the team looked to the future with realistic thoughts of success. Only now has the team beaten opponents by 50 points. And only now have the Mariners begun priding themselves on building a tradition.
Reasons for the resurgence of St. Monica football, which has not produced a winning team since 1981, are as complex as they are poignant.
In last season’s final game, a season St. Monica finished 2-9, the Mariners were battling high-powered Serra in the Camino Real League.
“We scored once and thought we were lucky,” remembers senior quarterback Chris Leaton. “Then we scored again and realized we could score on anyone.”
Although the Mariners lost the game and finally put an end to a 2-season debacle encompassing two wins and 17 losses, they sensed a turnaround.
“In that Serra game,” said tailback Mike Wagner, “we showed people we could play. We knew we could win.”
And by sniffing the first scent of a winning attitude the team had no option but to hunt it down.
“That was the game we all pulled together like a family,” Leaton said. “At the time we didn’t know how much effect the Serra game would have.”
After the season, change surfaced in more places than simply the players’ minds. Coach Andre Patterson left for a position at Weber State and Angelo Jackson, who was hired as an assistant to the football and basketball teams a year before, was named coach.
Jackson has taken the torch and set the program ablaze.
St. Monica, with an enrollment of only 575, is undefeated after seven games, including a 50-0 thrashing of Cathedral. Words like playoffs , college recruiters and tradition have jumped into the Mariner vocabulary.
The team, which practices at a nearby junior high school and plays home games 3 miles from the school, has 35 players, up 15 from last season. The dean says discipline problems have decreased and morale has skyrocketed.
But for those looking for a magic formula or secret, beware: Winning comes hard. It has taken years of embarrassment for the turnaround to surface. One player said he still remembers how even the cheerleaders would joke about the team.
All jokes have ceased, though, and the team has adopted a new slogan: “How ya’ like me now?”
“Everybody wanted to play us last year,” Jackson said. “Now we are one of the highest scoring teams in the league.”
And deriving from the new-found confidence is a focus on establishing an unwritten law of winning, a custom of successful football. Jackson understands how important such a custom can be.
He said he realized the significance of being able to draw inspiration from past glories when he walked into an opposing gym during his first year as assistant basketball coach and immediately noticed banners hanging from every rafter, symbols of league titles captured in the name of tradition.
“Now we are building a tradition,” Jackson said. “You have to start a tradition before you can start winning. We are starting one that shows we can play with anybody. Tradition is a big motivating factor for the kids and it is very important.”
Motivation has not come easily for the Mariners. After suffering through several coaching styles and personalities, as well as a bevy of ways to lose, many players felt some sort of alteration was forthcoming, if not desperately needed.
The seeds of change were planted before Patterson packed his bags for Weber State. He constructed a new Wing-T offense, but lack of time to master it and a losing attitude hampered its success. But after a summer of practice, losing only three starters and the installation of an updated Wing-T, the Mariners changed from a small-play offense into a powerhouse. St. Monica is averaging more than 40 points per game, including 38 touchdowns, and averages over 450 yards per game. The new Wing-T, which Jackson adopted from watching the University of Delaware football team, keeps defenses out of kilter.
“Now it’s a double slot situation all the time,” Jackson said. “With the double tight formation we are always balanced. And (by always having a man in motion), you are forcing their imbalance.”
Combine the new look with a step down into the Santa Fe league and the results are nothing short of devastating. Running backs Diallo Hall and Wagner have rushed for about 700 yards each.
“This year we have a whole different attitude,” said Bobby Cadena, a 155-pound guard. “We started off fresh. The other years are erased and our record in every game now is 0-0.”
Jackson said he expected the turnaround but confesses he did not feel the team did until the Serra game and a summer football camp. Before Patterson exited, he planned to take a few players to a weeklong camp in Utah. Jackson came in and decided to take all those who could attend. It turned out to be a stroke of genius.
“We came together as a team at the camp,” said Jesus Moreno, a 280-pound tackle being recruited by several major universities. “We got closer as a team, as a family. We learned discipline. I think the camp turned us around.”
And with the combination of the camp, the increase in team confidence and a firm grasp of the offense, the only ingredient missing was Jackson’s tutelage.
Before taking the job at St. Monica, Jackson was the director of two YMCA’s and said the experience with youngsters at the Y has carried over into his coaching methods. He said when teaching children the basics of a sport, it is detrimental to expose them to too much. Limits must be respected.
“Each age group is different,” Jackson said, “but the principle is the same. You don’t turn a fast, running quarterback into a drop-back quarterback.
“I think we’ve succeeded,” continues the muscular Jackson, “because we brought in a new system and maintained a coaching staff. We have a lot of team speed and our offensive line averages over 220 pounds.”
Leo Klemm, who doubles as vice principal and basketball coach, hired Jackson while acting as athletic director. He could not have anticipated the sudden turnaround.
“He is enthused and a good leader,” says Klemm, who has been at St. Monica for 7 years and has yet to see a winning football season. “It is not just Xs and O’s. You have to create a focus and sustain that focus. Angelo is doing that.”
Jackson, who predicts a playoff appearance for the Mariners barring injuries, agrees.
“Intensity must be established,” he said. “I saw a lot of what intensity and mental preparation can do being Coach Klemm’s assistant. I learned you have to stress that. I think I am the kind of coach who can see aggressiveness and use it, but you have to be all of the above to be a very good coach.”
And being a very good coach has not only helped the team but has spilled over into the student body. Klemm said the winning football team has brought a sense of community to the school and the students “have created a vision together and look out for each other.”
“You could sense (the turnaround),” says Athletic Director Larry Rodriguez. “And football has sparked interest in other sports. I guess success breeds success. This year is just so impressive. I have never seen a team like this in 20 years. Never.”
Although most of the St. Monica players have not been alive for 20 years, they can feel the strength of this Mariner team.
“Deep down inside,” says Moreno, “I know we are going to be winners.”