The Los Alamitos High football team did not have much time to celebrate its Sunset League championship last season.
A quick exit from the CIF Southern Section Division 2 playoffs, in the form of a 56-34 first-round loss to Norco, dealt a blow to those good feelings.
Griffins coach Ray Fenton says the slate has been wiped clean. The only game that matters is the next one.
Taken one step further, the only league championship that matters is the one up for grabs this fall. Los Alamitos’ defense of its first league crown since 2014 got considerably more difficult with the addition of Corona del Mar to the Sunset League.
“Any time you add the No. 6-ranked team in Orange County to your league, the league got a lot better,” Fenton said, referring to the Orange County Register’s opening poll. “That’s what we like about being in the Sunset League. It’s great football.
“To have a bunch of public schools together that are playing great football all in the same league, it creates a lot of respect among each team, and that’s what we like to [have].”
The Griffins do not back away from a challenge. Their first two scheduled games are against Division 1 playoff teams Vista Murrieta and Long Beach Poly.
In their opener on Friday, the Griffins gave the host Broncos all they could handle, but they came up short in a 38-35 loss at Vista Murrieta.
Senior wide receiver Demario King had 104 receiving yards and two touchdowns, and junior free safety John Newman had a 55-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Los Alamitos has put together one of the toughest nonleague schedules in anticipation of a battle, both in league and in the Division 2 playoffs to follow.
“Every game you play in the playoffs is like a finals,” Fenton said. “Any one of those teams that makes the playoffs honestly can win the division. It’s that good of a division. It’s just going to come down to some luck and some breaks that go your way [that make the difference between] whether you can get out of each game and progress to the finals.”
As much as the Griffins embrace a challenge, some of them have heard enough of the CdM question. The Sunset League inherited a league champion in the Sea Kings (1-1), who won 30 Pacific Coast League games in a row before departing.
“I feel like going into the season, a lot of people are doubting us, so in practice, we’re playing with a chip on our shoulder and getting ready to prove everyone wrong,” junior outside linebacker Giovanni De Leon said. “We’re just practicing every day hard, knowing what our end goal is, and that is a ring this year.”
De Leon is part of the Griffins’ impressive ability to reload instead of rebuild at the linebacker position. He was offered by Arizona State in May.
Los Alamitos has to replace the production of Sunset League Defensive Player of the Year Issaiah Johnson (Arizona) and Co-Linebacker of the Year Alex Miskela (BYU).
With De Leon and returning first-team all-league selection Nicholas Valenzuela patrolling the second level of the Griffins’ defense, Los Alamitos remains in good hands.
“I really like it here in the sense that it always seems like we have really good linebackers, and this year is no exception,” Fenton said.
De Leon said he is just the next in line, but the culture of the program breeds healthy competition in practice. The roster is filled with players waiting to take advantage of their opportunity when they get on the field.
“The wonderful thing about this program is the depth, the amount of people that we have in our program,” De Leon said. “If one man gets hurt or one man misses an assignment, it’s not like we have to stick with that. We have next man up, and that’s good.
“We keep all of our players ready to play because they know that at any given moment, they might be in there, and that’s their moment to shine. I just love that about us.”
The Griffins have turned to junior Cade McConnell as their new quarterback. He will be taking the place of the Sunset League Co-Offensive Player of the Year Grant Caraway, although the recent graduate has stayed with Los Alamitos as the wide receivers coach.
McConnell’s primary targets will be first-team all-league performer Kenui Huey, second-teamer Zack Wagoner and King.
A quarterback has the opportunity to showcase his abilities only as long as his offensive line can keep him upright. Senior Kenneth Sale, a first-team all-league selection, leads the protection unit.
“We have different types of protections, depending on what we’re doing and the action behind it,” Fenton said. “Kenny being a second-year guy at that position, he’s taken control of the front. We really rely on him to make sure that our protection is sound.”
Running back Keanu Norman was a focal point of the Griffins’ offense last year. He rushed for 691 yards and 13 touchdowns as a junior.
“He’s special,” Fenton said. “There’s no doubt about that. He’s a Sunset League Running Back of the Year as a sophomore and junior, and he deserves those two awards.”
Huey is Los Alamitos’ leading returner at wide receiver. The senior recently received his first offer from New Mexico Highland University on Thursday.
The 6-foot-1, 145-pound wideout had 41 catches for 592 yards and four touchdowns as a junior.
The Griffins hope that a good regular season translates to postseason success this year.
“We want to go out there and win games,” Huey said. “We don’t want to just win league. We want to go and win a state title.”
Los Alamitos Griffins
CIF Southern Section Division: 2
Coach: Ray Fenton (third year)
Staff: TJ Fenton (quarterbacks), Nick Rotherham (inside receivers), Grant Caraway (wide receivers), Greg Snyder (offensive line), Michael Cobleigh (defensive coordinator), John Eyman (linebackers), Greg Russell (defensive line/special teams), Delvon Wingfield (secondary)
2017 season: 7-4 overall, 5-0 in the Sunset League (first place), lost 56-34 to Norco in the first round of the CIF Southern Section Division 2 playoffs
Offensive scheme: Multiple
Defensive scheme: 3-4
Returning offensive starters: Six
Returning defensive starters: Six
Returning with honors: Sr. RB Keanu Norman; Sr. C/LS Kenneth Sale; Sr. LB Nicholas Valenzuela; Jr. WR/FS John Newman; Sr. WR Kenui Huey; Sr. CB Bobby Blandino; Sr. WR Zack Wagoner
24 – at Vista Murrieta
31 – vs. Long Beach Poly at Cerritos College
6 – vs. Banning at Veterans Stadium
14 – at Carson
21 – at Tesoro
28 – vs. Fountain Valley* at Huntington Beach High
5 – vs. Newport Harbor* at Cerritos College
12 – vs. Corona del Mar* at Cerritos College
19 – at Huntington Beach*
26 – vs. Edison* at Cerritos College
*denotes league game