LA CAÑADA — When the La Cañada High football team's 2012 season ended earlier and more discouragingly than hoped, Spartans Coach James Sims set the bar higher.
In order to qualify for the La Cañada varsity team, Sims required his players be able to bench press 200 pounds and squat 300. Sims, who's preparing for his second year with the Spartans, had one player when he first set the mark in November, now he has 28.
"At first, people didn't expect anyone to get in," said Marshall Clark, a returner at middle linebacker and tight end that's been named one of three senior tri-captains. "There's over 20 people in right now and there's probably going to be more."
With strength training at the base, Sims also prepared for the upcoming season by condensing his playbook.
"When I got here last year, I didn't have a lot of time and I ran so many variations; it was a lot to put on their plate," said Sims, who took an adjunct-teaching position at Southwest College without a full-time job at La Cañada High. "We've really condensed the offense. We still have everything that we do, but we're focusing on just certain parts of it."
Sims will focus on the fly offense — a more spread out variation of the wing-T. It will allow him to take a run-first approach, with flexibility to stay balanced with returning quarterback Robbie Fuelling keeping defenses honest with the passing game.
Defense, which will be La Cañada's "backbone," has also been simplified.
"Everything has been dummied down and we're going to learn and learn and be the best with it," Sims said.
The Spartans will shift primarily to zone coverages, while relying on a big front line to pressure the opposition. Seniors Adam Fazzi, a captain, and Guillermo Padilla will fill in the two tackle positions, with Todd Murray at one end spot.
Sims also hopes his son, D'Andre Sims — who's listed at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds — will be granted a transfer from Arlington Country Day in Florida to La Cañada and play defensive end and fullback for his senior season.
"We're going to be real big up front and strong, and we've got linebackers that will knock your head off," said Sims, mentioning Clark and Michael Greenberg at outside linebacker. "I am feeling pretty good about our defense this year."
Even with a simpler scheme, the intensity is way up this spring, said the Spartans' third captain and returning running and defensive back Jadon Henry.
"That's what's going to make us good this year, if we play with heart and intensity we're going to be fine," said Henry, who will also be a senior next year. "We're all getting stronger and faster this year. [Sims] expects a lot out of us this year and he's not holding back, either. He's not sugar coating anything this year and that's what we want.
"We're just a different, different team and you guys should be able to see that when pads get on."
The most noticeable change for the Spartans this spring were the hours. Spring practices started May 17 and wrapped up June 5, as La Cañada went from afternoon to mostly early-morning workouts. The Spartans, who also participated in four passing league competitions, drilled from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. Monday through Thursday to accommodate Sim's position at Southwest College and also practiced 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Fridays and 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. on Saturdays.
"We practice hard everyday, wake up at 6 a.m. and go into the weight room, we're really pushing," said Guillermo Padilla, a senior who's playing football for the first time since his freshman year. "That was really new to me, it inspired me to put more effort in."
While La Cañada endured a disappointing 2-8, 1-4 in Rio Hondo League season and fifth-place finish in league last year, Sims is hopeful the group of 52 players — 49 returners — who came out for spring can help expand on his vision for the team.
"I look at it as changing the culture, last year we laid the foundation," said Sims, who's hoping for a winning season at 6-4 or 7-3. "You go 2-8, that's discouraging but the foundation was built, a work ethic was built at that time. Now we start putting up the frame."