The Marina High football team has had plenty of struggles throughout the years.
Vikings coach Jeff Turley is now in his sixth season as the head of the program, and his largest senior class to date is offering more than a ray of sunshine this fall.
Marina upset previously unbeaten Katella 21-15 Sept. 13 at Glover Stadium, giving the Vikings a 3-0 record and their best start since the 2016 campaign.
The next win for Marina will match the most games the Vikings have won under Turley, and at present, the team is ranked No. 7 in the CIF Southern Section Division 11 poll.
Turley bills himself as a defensive coach, and he must be proud of what he has seen as of late. His team shut out Torrance 56-0 in its second game, and it secured six turnovers on defense against Katella.
Three-year starter Eric Church had a huge impact against Katella from his strong safety position. The senior reeled in an interception, and his fumble recovery inside Marina’s 10-yard line likely prevented a game-tying touchdown drive in the third quarter.
“I think we all went into the game knowing that they were going to be a hard team [to beat], and they weren’t going to give up,” Church said of the Knights. “Knowing that the team is undefeated, they’re going to have a chip on their shoulder, just as we do.”
In some ways, facing Katella’s run-oriented attack provided the perfect matchup for Church, who enjoys playing near the line of scrimmage in run defense. Church and senior outside linebacker Conner Long met the ballcarrier in the backfield on two separate occasions.
“When teams keep trying to stuff the ball down our throat, it’s always funny to me, watching them try to run to me and Conner’s side,” Church said. “If they get past Conner, they’re going to have to get past me. It’s challenging to do both.”
The duo excelled as edge rushers, but they also had success in coverage, as each came away with an interception.
“I [have] got a love for quarterbacks,” Long said. “If I can get him in the backfield, I try my best to just get back there and let him remember this [jersey] number.”
That postgame quote was recited to Church, who could only shake his head in amusement while he replied that it sounded like something the hard-hitting Long might say.
Church arrived at training camp before his freshman year with ample experience in another sport. He said he has played soccer since age 4.
A member of the Vikings coaching staff recognized Church’s all-around athletic attributes right away in the form of Turley’s oldest son, Jeff Jr.
“He told me, ‘Dad, this kid is a really good athlete. He can play anywhere for you,’ " Turley said. “We kind of took a better look at him and what not. The next year, he developed, and he started showing us that promise that he is a multi-[dimensional], Swiss Army knife of an athlete. He can help us in a lot of different ways.
“He’s put in work. He’s constantly going between football and soccer and club soccer and track. The kid never stops.”
I would say that not everyone gets his personality and his drive, but he’s pretty focused on where he wants to go and what he wants to do.
The Vikings have sparingly taken Church off the field when he has been healthy over the past two seasons. He has seen action not only at strong safety, but also as a wide receiver, kicker and punter.
Against Katella, which entered last week ranked No. 4 in Division 10, he had two catches for 18 yards, while also converting all three of his extra-point kicks.
Turley described Church as an individual of intense focus. It is perhaps that power of will that allowed him to return to athletics after suffering two fractured vertebrae last football season.
Church said the injury occurred when he was tackled from behind while running back an interception against El Modena. He recovered in time to join Marina’s boys’ soccer team for Wave League play in the winter.
“I was amazed after everything that he went through, he actually made it back to play on the soccer team before the end of the season last year,” Turley said. “He’s a really tough kid.
“I would say that not everyone gets his personality and his drive, but he’s pretty focused on where he wants to go and what he wants to do.”
Marina finished in third place in the first year of the Big 4 League last season. Although the Vikings are in a far better position to contend for a playoff spot now, Church looks at the new league as its own proving ground.
“I think for my class, we were being moved to a slightly less-stacked league against us,” Church said. “We viewed it as we need to send a message that we were meant to be in the Sunset League.
“I feel like we will go into all the games in the Big 4 League fired up and ready to hit.”
The Vikings will play one of their former Sunset League rivals when they host Huntington Beach (1-3) in the Oil vs. Water rivalry game on Friday at Westminster High at 7 p.m. Marina has not defeated Huntington Beach since a 21-14 nonleague win at Orange Coast College on Sept. 25, 2008.
“I think this year will be different playing Huntington, just the amount of heart that my class has going into the game,” Church said. “We don’t really give up. We won’t back down. That should definitely change from last year.
“We should be able to go into it fired up and ready to hit Huntington.”
Born: March 29, 2002
Hometown: Huntington Beach
Height: 6 feet 2
Weight: 190 pounds
Coach: Jeff Turley
Favorite food: Cheeseburger
Favorite movie: “Avengers: Endgame”
Favorite athletic moment: Church’s club soccer team, the California Rush 02 Nero, won the Presidents Division of the California State Cup in 2017. He assisted on the game-winning goal scored by Anthony Ruiz in the championship match, which was a 1-0 win over the Hawaiian Gardens Eagles
Week in review: Church had an interception and a fumble recovery on defense in Marina’s 21-15 nonleague victory over host Katella on Sept. 13 at Glover Stadium in Anaheim. He added two catches for 18 yards and made all three of his extra-point kicks.
Support our sports coverage by becoming a digital subscriber.