LA CRESCENTA — The Crescenta Valley High football team would like to prove that it's 4-1 start last year was more emblematic of its identity than its 0-5 skid to end the 2010 campaign.
Injuries, most devastatingly offensive catalyst Marro Lee's broken thumb that sidelined him for the final five games of the year, clipped the wings of the Falcons' spread offense. Lee, a running back, is back and primed for a big senior year, though, and is joined by most of the Falcons' skill position players coming back for Friday's 7 p.m. season opener against Santa Paula at Moyse Field.
"We don't want to be known as a 4-6 team," senior quarterback Zac Wilkerson said. "I think this year we're going to be a lot more pumped up and ready to go to have a winning season."
Last season, the Falcons had a lot of new faces at the varsity level and, since a great deal of those first-time varsity starters were seniors, there is even more turnover this year. But, as it opens the door for a transfusion of talent from Crescenta Valley's league-champion junior varsity squad, that may not be a bad thing at all.
"Hopefully, we won't have the same injury problems as last year," Lee said, "but I think overall, together as a group, we have more chemistry or bonding. We're a more tight-knit group, a lot of us play great together, especially the juniors. They're a really great addition to what we had going on last year."
On offense, the Falcons welcome back Wilkerson as the unquestioned starter after he had to compete for snaps last season. They also return third-year senior wideout Nick Ruiz and senior Nathan Sarreal at center.
There's also multiple options in the backfield, as last year's JV most valuable player, junior William Wang, has made the jump to varsity and figures to alternate with Lee in the Falcons' single-back sets.
"What we've sort of done is look at how are we going to get them both in the game at the same time," said second-year Coach Paul Schilling, who will also split Lee out wide on occasion and use him to return kicks. "[Wang's] kind of similar to Marro, just a year behind. He's exciting, he's more of kind of a straight-ahead, hard runner. He's actually faster than Marro, but Marro's very shifty."
The offensive line, last year's most experienced component of the team, is a little greener now, with Sarreal flanked by senior tackles Armen Pashai and Bobby Becerra and junior guards Andrew Kiorkof, up from JV, and Naz Erdoglyan. Also returning is tight end Justin Springfield, a senior.
"We look pretty good, we're bringing a lot of our skill positions back," Ruiz said. "We've got a little bit smaller line than last year, but we have a lot of good players who came from our JV team last year, so we should be pretty good."
The other wideouts will be senior Patrick Kim and junior Jack Lutynski, up from JV, while senior Pavle Atanackovic, the Falcons only All-CIF selection last season, is back at kicker.
"Offensively, we think we know how we'll be, our skill guys are back," Schilling said. "Defense is our big question. I think we have the right guys in there. It's just are they going to get it done?"
This year, the Falcons will return to the base 4-3 defensive look favored by the team two seasons ago. Schilling calls Sarreal, an all-league defensive honorable mention last season, the anchor of the defense. He will play middle linebacker, flanked by outside backers Springfield and senior Tae Ha, a first-year varsity player.
"It's a whole new defense from last year," Sarreal said. "[Last year] the formation lineup was more basic, but this year we have lot more tricks and a lot more schemes."
There has been turnover, and now battles for positions, along the defensive line. Schilling said his best ends are Pashai and Becerra, but he would like to avoid having them play too many defensive downs over the course of a game. Seniors Isaac Moran and Masis Ohanesyan also figure to be mainstays on the defensive line.
"We're going to try to have as much of a rotation up front, besides Moran, as we can," Schilling said, "because it's hard to be in the trenches on both sides the whole game."
Chad Eggertson, a junior first-year varsity player, and Ruiz are the safeties. The corners will be manned by a platoon of Lee and Wang on one side and returning starter Kevin Cooper, a senior, on the other.
"I think we're pretty fast, pretty quick," Schilling said. "Compared to our previous teams, we have more kids running 4.8s and 4.6s in the 40 than we've ever had. We try to be speed oriented on defense."
Ruiz will likely handle punting duties.
"It's nice to have two guys that can kick," Schilling said.
After a three-game nonleague slate, the Falcons will open league play at 7 p.m. Sept. 30 against Hoover at Moyse. By the time the regular season concludes with the traditional finale against archrival Arcadia at 7 p.m. Nov. 11 at Moyse, Crescenta Valley hopes to be headed to a playoff berth.
"Me and Zac have been on the teams the last couple years that have had the potential and just didn't come through," Ruiz said. "We both know what it's like to have it there and not pull through, so I think we're working a lot harder this year."