LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE — There's plenty for the La Cañada High football team to learn in spring practice under its first-year Coach James Sims.
Sims, who made the move from Hawthorne High in Jacksonville, Fla., started the Spartans out with a back-to-basics approach. His first goal was to get his team in shape and of course to buy into his hard-work philosophy.
About a month into spring practices, Sims already likes what he's seen from La Cañada and has high hopes for the upcoming season.
"It is going to be a different team," said Sims, who's also brought a new coaching staff with him that includes a former St. Francis football player, two La Cañada Gladiators coaches and a former Temple City coach. "It is hard for me to say because I haven't seen the competition, but I am pleased with where we are at."
Matt Jones, who returns to lead La Cañada at quarterback for his senior year, said Sims has won the team over already.
"Coach Sims is revolutionizing the program and he is having us work really hard and putting us in the best position to win," Jones said. "From a player's point of view that's all you can really ask for."
Sims likes the way La Cañada has responded, with the team taking to plenty of conditioning drills and a stronger emphasis on the weight room.
"I like the work ethic here — second to none," said Sims, who used to be a competitive body builder and has run a conditioning camp for 12 years. "The weight room has become amazing, I got them enjoying the weight room. Most of the [lifting] records in there are from 2008, 2009, I told them I don't want anything before 2012 on that board by the end of the year."
The changes have been embraced by La Cañada's Andrew Paynter, who returns as the Spartans' primary running back.
"It's a lot different [this year], but I like it," Paynter said. "It's helpful, I am getting a lot stronger and faster."
With the Spartans in shape, they've delved into Sims' playbook, which includes a wide variety of formations on both offense and defense.
The key for La Cañada and Sims will be keeping teams guessing with balance and plenty of different looks on both ends of the ball.
"I have always been a good chess player and I understand you need to play football like a game of a chess," Sims said.
On defense, the Spartans are working on establishing their base 4-4 defense, out of which they'll shift into 5-3 and 6-2 sets.
Offensively, the Spartans are working on a fly offense that spreads the field, uses deceptive movement and shifts into a lot of different looks out of it to keep defenses guessing.
"Right now we are still trying to learn our system and get everything down," said Grant Owen, La Cañada's lone returning All-Area and All-Rio Hondo League first-team pick. "We've been focusing a lot on offense and getting that set up. We're still figuring out and trying to pick [the defense] up."
Sims will look to add a wishbone formation later in spring practices where La Cañada will continue its option attack.
"I like the intensity we're going through," said Tanner Massimino, a second-team all-leaguer at the tackle spot last year who returns to lead a big offensive line that includes three members over six foot and 200 pounds: center Eric Kimball, tackle Peter Garfield and Massimino. "We're going through a lot of stuff, but a lot of new kids are out here and I think it's good everyone is learning. …We'll still be running a lot, it all depends on what's working."
Jones returns to lead La Cañada at quarterback in his senior season and will be backed up by Owen, who will also play wide receiver, some running back and safety again this year.
"Grant Owen is amazing, he can play every position on the field," Sims said. "We are going to work him in the slot, in the backfield and out wide and teams will have to account for him everywhere on the field. He will be our ace in the hole."
While Paynter, who ran for 218 yards and three touchdowns on 37 carries last season, will be the team's primary ball carrier, Jadon Henry will serve as a change-of-pace back and also play corner after spending most of last season with the junior varsity squad.
"He is the second strongest and second smallest kid on the team," said Sims of Paynter, raving about his work ethic. "After practice he goes back and puts in another hour. He is so committed. …Henry is so fast and with that big line in front of them I think we're going to get them going."
While everything seems to be coming together for the Spartans early, Sims knows he still has plenty to learn about his team, the league and what kind of success La Cañada will be able to achieve this year.
"I haven't seen the competition other than what I've seen on film, but I think we're going to be very competitive this year," Sims said. "I say all this without having seen one player in pads yet, but based on what I see and based our system and what we do I think we're going to cause some people some problems and be competitive."