NORTHEAST GLENDALE — As the losses piled up week after grueling week during the ill-fated 2010 season, the Glendale Community College football team's frustration mounted.
Over the course of the spring and summer, the returners from last year's 1-9 squad converted that frustration into motivation to work harder and become stronger and more cohesive in the big picture, while mastering the little things that could mean the difference between winning and losing when the squad opens the book on the 2011 season at Pasadena City College at 6 p.m. Saturday.
"It's amazing how much we've matured over a year," sophomore defensive end Danny Cruz, a Hoover High graduate, said. "Just everything in general, our defense, our leadership. It all started in the weight room last spring and winter, everybody showing up on time, being here giving it their 100% and you can tell the difference right now on the field."
Injuries, and at times just plain subpar play on the field, played a hand in the Vaqueros' going winless until the final week of the season last year and finishing 1-5 in the Pacific Conference's American Division. But third-year Coach John Rome said conflicting agendas within the team and too many allowances made for players and coaches were a major downfall.
"We are going to do the right things this season," Rome said. "Win or lose."
It's an attitude the players have embraced, knowing that several of last year's closest losses — each of the team's five losses to open conference play were by a touchdown or less — came down to avoidable mistakes or lack of preparedness.
"One of the things that we made a point of emphasis was to do things right," said Sam Campbell, a sophomore right tackle out of Crescenta Valley High. "If we do the small things, then success follows really big."
The biggest change on tap is the defensive realignment that will see the Vaqueros switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme under new defensive coordinator Tony DiThomas in an effort to shore up the unit that ranked 29th in Southern California in total defense while giving up an average of 33.4 points per game last year.
"We were a three-man front, now we're a four-man front," Rome said. "We're primarily a multiple-scheme defense, much more zone oriented."
The defensive line features four returners in ends Cruz and Milan Biggers, tackle Chris Schmidt and nose tackle Ivan Abarenov out of Hoover.
The linebackers will be sophomore Nick Leon out of Crescenta Valley and freshmen Nick Mateus and Isaac McDuffy, while sophomores Richard Askew and Osa Aikhionbare will anchor the secondary.
"It's not going to happen again this year, hopefully," Cruz said of a repeat of last season's struggles. "You have to have that much more energy in you. Right now we're trying to give it our all, so in the game we're used to it. If anybody steps up on fourth and one, hopefully we'll be successful and get that stop."
The Vaqueros' multiple pro-style offense, which ranked 25th in Southern California last year, will remain virtually unchanged from last season, but with considerable turnover personnel-wise.
Burbank High graduate Kevin Hunter will be the starting quarterback after serving as a backup for most of last season.
"He's developed his leadership skills in the offseason," Rome said of Hunter, who is also the team's punter.
Hunter began to earn more snaps toward the end of the 2010 campaign, which wrapped up with a 42-27 win over L.A. Southwest.
"The key to running the offense successfully is just decision making," Hunter said. "We've got so many people on the team who can get the job done, it's just making the right decisions."
The Vaqueros figure to rely heavily on the rushing game again and have three experienced running backs returning in Omar Barrera-Sanchez, Burroughs High graduate Joe Wiggan and Glendale High product Zane Archer, who played linebacker last year. Glendale college also added transfer Timothy Broughton from Benedict College to its running back corps.
The team returns just one receiver in Eugene Gandara, while Lawrence Phillips from Muir High, Darren Morrow and tight end Anthony Carter from Burroughs figure to get looks from Hunter in the passing game.
Anchoring it all together is an offensive line that includes a mix of established returners and intriguing newcomers.
"What will help us a tremendous amount is a very good offensive line," Rome said. "All of them have done a great job this fall camp."
Returners Campbell and left guard Ronnie Marquez out of Glendale High are the holdovers, while the rest of the line includes tackle Stephen Escoboza (Burroughs) and center Spencer Lee (Burbank), both freshmen. Freshman Ivan Guerrero is in the mix for last spot at tackle.
"Whether we win or we lose, it's all on the O-line," Marquez said. "If we can't get movement on the ball, we lose the game. We can't be just one-dimensional. We've got three freshmen right now who are doing pretty good and we're just going to have to be the dominant side."
One of the only caveats may be the smaller roster of roughly 70 players the Vaqueros will start the season with compared to previous years.
"We've got some guys that have worked very, very hard," Rome said. "We asked a lot of them this offseason to kind of discipline themselves.
"We just do not have a lot of depth."
Still, that isn't stopping the Vaqueros from taking a positive approach to the season and their prospects of surprising some people.
"We're staying optimistic out here, we're working hard," Askew said. "We're meshing pretty good now and we're coming together as a team. We're ready."