From forfeits to fortune for Flintridge Prep football

Eight years removed from celebrating a CIF Southern Section Division championship, the Flintridge Prep football team found itself far removed from contending for the playoffs, much less a division title.

Instead, the Flintridge Prep program was in dire times, struggling not only to win games, but to simply field a team.

The 2011 season was arguably the worst in program history for myriad reasons. After a win in its season opener, Flintridge Prep lost nine consecutive games to end a tumultuous campaign. Two of those losses were by forfeit, perhaps the most troubling factor of all. Indeed, these were troubling times for the Rebels.

“I think everybody was just kind of curious and on egg shells about how things were going to go because things went so bad last year,” Flintridge Prep Coach Antonio Harrison said.

But, as the 2012 season is still going strong for Flintridge Prep — which has an amazing ring to it considering the travails of 2011 — things have quickly turned around for Rebels football.

To an outsider, it seemed a success for the Rebels in 2012 would be getting through the year in one piece. The mood was considerably more optimistic on the team in the offseason with 15 seniors on a roster that grew from 18 to 23 after Prep recruited more players on campus.

“We struggled a lot last year, but we kind of knew we were a much better team than last year,” Flintridge Prep offensive and defensive lineman Tucker Chemel said. “We weren’t quite sure what to expect, but our goal was playoffs and a winning record. … We went into the season thinking it was kind of iffy, but once we started doing two-a-days in the summer we saw we have a lot more potential.”

Chemel said the team hoped for a winning record, playoff berth and to contend for a Prep League title this season, and the Rebels achieved all of that. They were rewarded with a No. 9 ranking in the CIF Southern Section Northeast Division a week before the playoff brackets were released.

“We definitely thought that was a possibility,” Chemel said of the ranking. “I don’t know how many people thought it was as possible as it really is, but definitely once things started falling into place we realized we can really do this. I know, I for one thought we can win league. We can definitely make an impact on playoffs, as well.”

While there were plenty of positives to take away through Flintridge Prep’s first four nonleague games this year, the Rebels still found themselves with little to show for the effort with a 1-3 record with all three losses — Army-Navy (32-30), Heritage Christian (19-16) and Malibu (40-34) — coming by a touchdown or less.

The losses may have been emotional, but they didn’t incite panic coming into Prep League play for the Rebels. In fact, it was a boost to their confidence and it showed in league.

Flintridge Prep took some momentum into league with a 48-8 victory over a struggling Sage Hill squad the week before Prep League play commenced. It was the second victory of the year for a team that had seen a string of lopsided 2011 losses continue into heartbreaking setbacks to start 2012 before a 48-6 triumph against Villanova Prep on Sept. 15 snapped an 11-game losing streak.

Prep got its first quality win in just as impressive fashion against Chadwick (54-19) at home on Oct. 6. The Rebels showed they were no one-week wonder by following it up with a 46-33 win over league rival Pasadena Poly.

Flintridge Prep saw its contention for a league title end with a loss to league champion Rio Hondo Prep (48-12) the next week, but cemented its second-place standing with a commanding win over Webb (40-13).

The runner-up finish put Prep in the playoffs for the first time in four years with a first-round game at nearby Ribet Academy Friday night at 7:30 p.m.

Prep’s renaissance can be credited to a host of different things. The most important and obvious is the Rebels' ability to avoid serious injuries — outside of losing starting center Cory Witter in the offseason — due to more substitutions during the game with a slight uptick in roster size and a renewed dedication to the weight room and conditioning, which is thanks to the team’s conditioning and the school’s girls’ soccer Coach Esteban Chavez.

There were some wholesale changes made to Prep’s defense, as it switched from a 4-4 to a 3-5 with a wealth of talented linebackers and a shortage of linemen.

“This year was kind of the first year we really tried to revaluate exactly who it is we have and tried to fit our team around the kids that we have,” said Flintridge Prep four-year defensive coordinator Matt Linder, whose defense has been led by linebackers Dylan Colliflower and Chad Cosse. “We are taking more time at getting together and really trying to make sure we're all on the same page and that we're not doing anything or putting a scheme in that doesn't play to the kids' strengths.”

The Rebels had some success with it against the Kares in 2011 and even more this year, giving up an average of 24.2 points (15.8 in wins) after giving up an average of 38.9 a game in 2011, and have had a knack for forcing key turnovers this season.

“My only other focus is to get them to believe in themselves and get them to believe that they are ranked in the playoffs for a reason — for their performance, for their skills, for their heart and dedication,” Harrison said. “I want them to believe in themselves as much as we all believe in them and know how good they can be. We’re a very good team, but we could be great. I see the potential and now is the time to get clicking if there’s any other time.”

For much of the season, the Rebels' offense has truly been clicking. Running back Stefan Smith has emerged as one of the most dangerous talents in the division and his game-breaking ways have been balanced by the straight-ahead, grind-it-out style of backfield mate Kurt Kozacik. Both have eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark after Joel Bryant was the last Rebel to reach the plateau in 2008.

“Kurt and I have just been following the plays and the holes have been open. We’ve just reestablished the running game is the big thing and we have some running backs that can get it through,” said Smith, who added that the return of offensive coordinator Glenn Beattie and the wing-T offense has paid dividends. “I love having Kurt because I think we both feel like if you give us the ball, between the two of us, we can get the team down the field.”

And down the field the Rebels have marched, right along with up the Prep League standings and the division rankings. Most importantly, they've reinvigorated a program that was, just a season ago, losing games without even taking the field and has now resurrected itself into a league contender and a playoff program with postseason aspirations.

Perhaps they've done even more for Flintridge Prep.

“I’m a firm believer that football, because it’s the first sport played in the school year, it sets the tone for the school year, it’s very visible,” said Harrison, who was a multi-sport standout during his high school days at Prep. “The boys are walking around with a lot more pride being on the football program. It’s also affecting the other programs in that other people are seeing the success we’re having and a lot of it is credit to the support we’ve been getting, so we’ve been giving a lot of support to the other programs as well, volleyball, water polo and cross-country.

“It started a reciprocal respect and mutual understanding for each other’s sports and helping the school community.”

After forfeiting more games than it won a season ago, the Rebels' turnaround can be viewed through a lot of numbers. Their 5-4 record gave them their first regular season above .500 since 2007 and their 3-1 record in the Prep League, just a season removed from a winless campaign, earned them a trip to the playoffs for the first time since 2008. They defeated archrival Pasadena Poly for the first time since 2007 and beat Chadwick, the Rebels' most heated rival in recent years, for the first time since 2008. Simply going from 1-9 to 5-4 is evidence enough of just how startling the turnaround has been, but the history involved lends more credence.

Alas, the turnaround didn't start with the first game of 2012.

“I think our goal started after the last season, making sure the boys were recruiting more kids and they were showing up in the summer for weight room and conditioning. We were averaging about 30 a day during the summer and that’s really helped. Our boys are a lot better conditioned, they’re a lot bigger, stronger and faster,” Harrison said. “Depending upon how they responded from last year, we weren’t really sure how the season was going to go, but we knew we had the talent to be successful. The things we wanted to focus on was keeping everyone healthy, having them have an enjoyable season and never trying to repeat what we had last year.”

It started in the summer and it's built into a November that nobody, at least a year ago, could have seen it coming. But here the Rebels are, playing in the CIF Northeast Division playoffs. Playing for a shot at the quarterfinals. Playing to assure themselves a winning season.

“I think we expected to compete in most of our games. I don’t think we would have expected all that’s happened, but we knew it was possible,” Smith said. “We were thinking about how good we might be able to be and I think everyone just wanted to see how good we could be.”

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