There’s something different in the atmosphere surrounding the La Cañada High football practices.
There is an optimism among all the units as the Spartans participate in drills, and there is a sense of excitement with a new season brewing.
It is an unexpected approach for a team that just won one game in 2018.
It certainly didn’t look like a team that hadn’t registered a Rio Hondo League victory since 2016 — the first year coach Jason Sarceda took over the program.
The goal this season for La Cañada isn’t just just winning a league game. Instead, the squad is more focused on qualifying for the CIF Southern Section Division XIV playoffs for the first time since 2014. Sarceda believes this team is capable of accomplishing that goal despite a sizable challenge with the team’s depth.
“We want to get to the playoffs and we have to find a way to get to the playoffs,” Sarceda said. “We know there’s only two spots available, so it’s limited and we have to make sure we win out. We have Temple City, South Pasadena, Monrovia and San Marino, so it’s going to be a battle.
“We can go out there and win three of those games, then we make the playoffs if we do. We’re taking it one game at a time. If we make the playoffs, everything can change for us. We have to get in and if we find a way in, it’s all open field for us.”
The change this season with the Spartans starts with practice, as a a whole new system has been designed to benefit each unit with a larger coaching staff than previous years.
“We changed our practices,” Sarceda said. “We adjusted our schedule on how we practice to get more efficiency out of it. We try to keep a faster tempo to keep these guys conditioned with football-related drills to speed that up. Strategically, I’m going to try to get through this season with better rotations.”
The Spartans finished 1-9 last season and were winless in Rio Hondo League action. La Cañada snapped a losing streaking that dated back to 2016 with a 37-6 nonleague victory against New Design Watts.
“We just have to really, really get the most out of each and every guy, and that’s what I was just telling and building these guys up,” Sarceda said. “You guys have to believe that anything is possible and really just dig deep inside yourself to get the best out of yourself. If we get each individual to believe in [himself] and pull the best out, we’re going to turn some pages this year and I feel it.”
The Spartans are returning a core of juniors that Sarceda will turn to.
La Cañada will look to a pair of junior receivers in Dezin Delgatty and Justin Zoltzman to spark the offense and help the defense in the secondary. Spartans junior Jacob Hardy will assist at the middle linebacker and fullback positions and senior Mario Colon will see time at running back.
“They’re going to lead our team, for sure,” Sarceda said. “They’re really solid guys that you can hang your hat on offense and defense. They’re going to be performing.
“Dezin Delgatty, Justin Zoltzman, Jacob Hardy, Mario Colon — those four dudes right there are solid for us. We have a lot of other leadership guys. There’s a group of these younger guys, but most of our kids are still juniors. A couple of our guys are seniors that are standout guys, but the majority of our solid unit are still juniors, so we’re still young.”
The quarterback position is still up in the air between senior Walker Baggett and sophomore Brandon Reese, though the upperclassmen was a key component in the receiving unit in previous seasons.
Baggett scouted his younger teammates in a preseason scrimmage against Eagle Rock and was surprisingly impressed.
“We were kind of worried they weren’t going to be as ready as we used to be when we were younger because practice style is a bit different,” Baggett said. “But they held their own, especially with their small numbers. They don’t have many guys on the team, but they’re in good shape and ready to go for the season.”
Reese, who played on the junior varsity level last year as a freshman, can also occupy the middle linebacker position on defense.
“It’s pretty different, but I’m really excited,” Reese said. “I think, as a team, we’re ready to take on our challenges. Lots of preparation with tons of game film and we just have to work hard in practice.”
La Cañada kicks off the season with a nonleague game at Hacienda Heights Wilson on Thursday on the road. It was a replacement after the Hoover program folded for the season in the spring.
The Spartans follow that up a week later with a nonleague home contest against Glendale on Aug. 31. La Cañada will continnue its homestand with a battle against Viewpoint, then travel to Fillmore and South El Monte before finishing off their nonleague calendar with a home game against Pioneer.
“We want to compete in every game, so we’re going to take it one game at a time,” Sarceda said. “We have Wilson first. There’s a new coach over there and I haven’t seen them. I really don’t know what they’re running just yet, but we’re going to be out there ready to battle.
“After that we have Glendale at home for a Saturday game, but that should be a good contest for us.”
Rio Hondo League action starts at home against Temple City on Oct. 4. The Spartans will then hit a road game against Monrovia, come back home against San Marino and close out the regular season at South Pasadena.
“We have Temple City first [in league],” Sarceda said. “I believe we have a chance to compete in the Rio Hondo League this year. We feel like we can compete in the Rio Hondo League and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going after it with that mentality. We’re not just trying to get by this season and get through the Rio Hondo League.”