For the past few seasons, La Cañada High football Coach Dan Yoder has been intent on spoiling Thanksgiving for his players.
"I have been saying the past couple years that I want to ruin people's Thanksgiving by having practice on Thanksgiving Day," said Yoder, who's entering his third year coaching the Spartans. "I haven't been able to do that, but I'm working on it."
In order for Yoder to accomplish his goal, the Spartans need to win a CIF Southern Section Mid-Valley Division playoff game. La Cañada has made the postseason the past two years without getting out of the first round. The Spartans fell to Covina, 42-14, in the first round last year, finishing the season with a 5-6 record after going 3-2 in the Rio Hondo League.
Making a playoff run this year will be a challenge for La Cañada after 32 players, including all eight of the team's all-league selections, graduated last year.
"We graduated a ton of seniors and that left us young and thin but the guys are doing a really good job," Yoder said. "The guys we needed to step up have done so and we've moved some guys around into new positions."
Matt Jones, a junior who started one game last year, is stepping in at quarterback and taking center stage in Yoder's option attack after competing with Grant Owen for the position all summer.
"Our offense is looking surprisingly good [with all the changes]," said Kyle Herron, La Cañada's starting fullback and linebacker. "We have a new quarterback and one returner on the line, and we have adjusted very well.
"The option is going to work out really well because of the speed we have at our wing backs."
The Spartans have four primary running backs who all figure to get plenty of work this year. Yoder plans to use his running backs — Kevin Stoner, Franklyn Cervenka, Andy Paynter and Derek Georgino — in a platoon situation this year, mixing up the looks for the defense.
"We have four really legitimate backs competing for carries," Yoder said. "That's a nice problem to have."
Stoner was a home run threat at fullback for La Cañada last year. He averaged 8.5 yards a carry (391 yards on 46 attempts), scored two touchdowns and was responsible for the team's longest run of the year — a 57-yard scamper. He also broke off 56-, 41- and 38-yard runs.
"We had him working at fullback and he had a lot of big runs," Yoder said. "Now we are moving him over to halfback and hopefully we can capitalize on his big-play ability from there a little more often."
Stoner is hoping to build on last year's success as a senior and one thing that has him excited is his new, bigger offensive line. Despite graduating most of his O-line last year, Yoder expects this year's group, which includes Brendan Daly, a senior center, juniors Eric Kimball, a guard, and Tanner Massimino, a left tackle, to have a big year.
"Our line is young, younger than they've been in the past, but they're also bigger," Yoder said. "What we lost in experience we gained in size. We are pretty excited about that. It's not often you get size on your offensive line in La Cañada."
Daley comes in at about 240 pounds and Kimball and Massimino check in at about 210 pounds.
"It's a lot nicer [having that size]," Stoner said. "The only problem is we don't have very many of them. It's nice they're a lot bigger, but we don't have as much depth, so we can't really afford to get hurt."
There's also a change on the other side of the ball for the Spartans.
"In the past, our secondary has always been pretty strong," Yoder said. "We always had a lot of depth and experience there, but it's a little less experienced this year. The strength of our defense right now is our experience at linebacker."
Herron and Marty Vardanian two senior, three-year varsity linebackers, will anchor the Spartans' defense this year and they're both embracing the role.
"Our focus is just leading the team and being that anchor, that rock, that backbone to everything," Herron said. "The linebackers tend to be the focus of the defense."
Yoder hopes all these changes add up to him being able to cross "making the second round of the playoffs" off his to-do list and Herron is right there with him.
"A big goal for me is to make it out of the first round," Herron said. "The last two years we have made it into that first round and got crushed."