LA CAÑADA — Coming off one of its toughest seasons, the Flintridge Prep football team put together its finest season in nearly a decade in 2012.
Now the Rebels are out to prove last year wasn’t an aberration or just a result of a team loaded with 13 seniors. Taking another step forward, not back, is the clear goal for fourth-year Flintridge Prep Coach Antonio Harrison and his veteran players.
“If you're successful that means you can't become complacent, you have to work twice as hard to get back to that same level,” Harrison said, “so we're pushing the boys a lot harder, I'm setting the bar a lot higher for them.”
Last year, Prep lost three of its first four games before rallying and finishing the year in second place in the Prep League and with a winning record — 6-5, 3-1 in league — for the first time since 2007.
In between, the Rebels qualified for their first CIF playoff game in four years and won their first postseason game since winning the Division XIII championship in 2003. They were also awarded the CIF State Academic Team Championship with a 3.58 grade-point average.
“It’s important for us to do it for coach Harrison,” said Flintridge Prep running and defensive back Stefan Smith, one of eight seniors on board for the Rebels, of keeping pace with last year. “We know as seniors if we want to do anything it’s make sure the program keeps building.”
Flintridge Prep, which enters the season ranked No. 9 in the CIF Southern Section Northeast Division, is already off to a good start. Its roster size has increased for the second year in a row with 26 varsity players on board for 2013, which opens for Prep against Army-Navy Friday at 7 p.m. at Occidental College.
“Football is back on the map here at Prep,” said the Rebels’ Brian Heintz, a senior defensive leader at middle linebacker and starting guard on the offensive line. “People are into it, people are out there and supporting us, but if we don’t show them some support back it will all be for nothing and Harrison’s going to have to start from square one.”
One thing that’s helped this offseason is the fact there aren’t any big changes to Harrison’s system — a first for him. The Rebels return veteran wing-T offensive coordinator Glenn Beattie and will run the 3-5 defense they became comfortable with last year.
Special teams is one area that could look a lot different with a capable kicker in junior Riley Jones. His presence could give them the option to send kickoffs deep and go for extra-point kicks and field goals, which was a luxury the Rebels didn’t have last season.
Without a question, Smith is the Rebels’ most valuable returner, coming off a junior season in which he earned All-Prep League and All-Area first-team honors. The running and defensive back racked up 1,480 rushing yards, 26 offensive touchdowns and another defensive score.
With Beattie’s wing-T offense back, its success will depend on Smith’s running and an offensive line that returns seniors Augustin Acosta-Ghioldi, Heintz and junior Cameron Wenn and adds juniors Eric Kang, Arthur Chang and Alex Gunning from junior varsity.
Harrison’s promised a more balanced attack with senior Kyle Law and sophomore Andrew Tsaengos still battling for the starting quarterback job.
“They both have great things about them, different traits that work well with the team so we're just trying to figure out who's going to be the best fit,” said Harrison, adding both players will have big roles one way or another this year. “[Law] can make the pass and he’s well respected in the huddle, Andrew Tsaengos is a freakishly good athlete who’s got a cannon.”
Whoever takes of the job will inherit a pair of tall and promising wideouts in Jones and junior William Penn.
“We are going to throw more, we threw more this past year than the wing-T’s ever thrown with Glenn Beattie at [offensive coordinator],” Harrison said. “We’re going to continue to ramp it up because we’ve got Riley Jones and Will Penn, who I think are going to be outstanding at the wide receiver spots.
“In my opinion, they’re probably going to be one of the two best wide receiver tandems we've had at Prep in a long, long time.”
While Prep is ushering in a number of fresh faces on offense, it returns plenty of experience defensively. Acosta-Ghioldi and Wenn return to the defensive line with junior varsity call-up Arthur Chang.
Heintz, Thomas Turchan and Eric Fung bring a senior presence to a group of linebackers that includes Kang. Penn and junior Elliot Witter are in competition for the final linebacker “rover” position .
In the backfield, Jones and Law will start at cornerback with Tsaengos likely at safety, a position Smith will also play from time to time. All of those players, except Law, stand over 6 feet tall.
While it will be tough to improve on a historic 2012 after graduating 13 seniors, the Rebels now know what it takes to reach their goals. Wenn, for one, is not worried about what the future holds.
“I feel like we’ve been working too hard for us not to be successful,” Wenn said.
Despite enjoying the finest season in his coaching career at Prep, Harrison’s goals are the same as the ones he had when he took over four years ago: win the homecoming game, defeat league rival Pasadena Poly, compete for the league title and a playoff berth.
Those are all things Flintridge Prep did in 2012.
“Really, all I want them to do is give me 110 percent and fight every play and where we end up is where we end up,” Harrison said. “That's the only thing I want from them is everything they've got.”