Culture change has been the theme of the La Cañada High football team's summer.
One of the first steps for the Spartans was spending part of their offseason under new coach James Sims not only working hard on the field and in the weight room, but also sprucing up the team's facilities by cleaning and repainting the locker room, weight room and coaches office.
"We really wanted them to feel a sense of pride," Sims said. "The kids are buying in, they love it. … That builds a culture, a way of life."
Sims knows the main way his team can show there's been a drastic change at La Cañada will be on the field this season, which begins Aug. 30 when it hosts Alhambra at 7 p.m.
La Cañada is coming off a disappointing 3-7, 2-3 in Rio Hondo League season in which it missed out on the postseason after taking fourth in league. This season the Spartans are set on making the playoffs, but not just barely edging in with a wild-card berth as they have in recent years.
"I want to get that No. 1 or No. 2 seed in Rio Hondo and have a home playoff game, something La Cañada hasn't had a in a long time, and I think it's doable," said senior wide receiver and defensive back Mario Del Cueto.
Returning quarterback Matt Jones, who finished 2011 on a high note, said La Cañada is set to finish the year with a winning record with a 26-man varsity squad loaded with experience — 14 seniors — and a new offense teams will have to adjust to.
"We have a lot of advantages over last year, one being a new program," Jones said. "A lot of the other teams have not seen us play at all. They don't know what we're going to do, especially since we pretty much run everything pretty well."
Sims' offense carries a lot of different looks, depending on the matchup, with the base formations being a split pro-set backfield and three-back wishbone formation.
"We run everything from fly offenses to spread offenses," Jones said. "We're going to throw the ball as much as we run the ball depending on who we play. That's what Sims always says, 'What offense do we run? It depends on who we play.' We are prepared for pretty much anything at this point."
Andy Paynter returns as La Cañada's primary running back, while Jadon Henry and Grant Owen also stand to get carries this season. Del Cueto, Owen and Ryan Martin, who stands at 6-foot-1, give Jones some threats at wide receiver, while Todd Murray gives him another 6-3 target at tight end.
La Cañada's offense will be anchored by its offensive line with center Eric Kimball, tackles Tanner Massimino and Durresa Hinika and guards Jackson Harbolt and Daniel Slaught.
"The offensive line is our strength of the whole football team," Sims said. "It's all seniors and they're big and strong. We've got some solid backs in the backfield, good receivers. I'm real happy with our offense this year. We're going to be young on defense, but there's some players that can play and it's going to make for a much better defense next year."
The Spartans will primarily work out of a 4-3 formation defensively, while their defensive backs figure to be their strength with Owen, who earned all-league first-team honors last year, leading the group.
"It is going to be tough for teams to pass on us because those are experienced guys back there that can play," Sims said of Owen, Henry, Del Cueto, Martin and Brad Woolf. "If you throw it in the wrong direction or throw it short you're going to have some problems."
While Del Cueto said the defensive backs will most likely carry the defense this year, he acknowledged there will be plenty of help from linebackers like Marshall Clark and Adam Fazzi. The defensive line will be led by Massimino at tackle and Stuart Bogel at end.
"I think if we start from the back and make sure they can't throw the ball on us we have a lot of good developing linebackers that were studs on [junior varsity] last year that are going to help us a lot," Del Cueto said.
La Cañada will need solid performances on both sides of the ball to knock San Marino and South Pasadena out of the respective second and third spots they held in league last year for an automatic playoff spot. A hot start could mean the world for a confident Spartans squad, though.
"It's very important to succeed early," said Sims, whose team has three of its first four games at home. "Those first two games we're coming out of the gate doing everything we can to win them. They're both at home and if you give those kids that confidence there's no telling what might happen after that."