LA CAÑADA — There’s just a different feel to the La Cañada High football team leading into the 2013 season, because paradoxically, things are just about the same as last year.
After being hired in late March of 2012, James Sims has an entire season and offseason under his belt as the Spartans coach.
“It feels a lot different,” Sims said. “Last year I didn't get here until April, so we were trying to rush to get everything done and try to get the system in. Now, we were able to start as soon as the season ended in November.”
The second-year Spartans coach used the time to increase his team’s presence in the weight room, requiring all varsity starters to meet a 200-pound bench and 300-pound squat requirement. He started with one eligible player and now has 30.
Not only have the Spartans bulked up, but they bought in, according to junior tight end and defensive end Todd Murray.
“We have a different mentality,” Murray said. “Coach tried to instill the mentality in us last year, some of the seniors weren’t really into it, but this year many more kids have bought in, especially the underclassmen, like my class and the sophomores, we’ve really gotten into it.”
In order to do so, Sims has simplified his playbook and will run the fly offense, a spread out version of the wing-T, while looking to pass the ball more effectively than last year.
Quarterback Robbie Fuelling, who’s also noticed a different air to 2013, returns for his senior year after appearing in nine games and starting the second half of the 2012 season.
“Our personnel and our whole team has really meshed together better than last year,” Fuelling said. “Last year was really a transition period, so we were just adjusting to the coaching staff and stuff, but now I feel like our whole offense and defense has really bonded together.”
It’s on the defensive side of the ball that the Spartans find their strength. They’re most stout up front with a big line of senior tackles Guillermo Padilla and Adam Fazzi, who’ll also start on the offensive line, and ends D’Andre Sims and Murray.
“Our defense is much better this year, we have a lot of guys from my class, which is really good because freshman year and last year when they were on [junior varsity] we’ve always had a really good defensive group,” Murray said. “We worked really well together as a group, like a well-oiled machine and I think we should be able to carry that into this year.”
Nearly all of La Cañada’s linebackers are back this year. Captain and last year’s leading tackler Marshall Clark (67 tackles, two fumble recoveries) is back in the middle with Cal McFadden and Michael Greenberg and Anthony Connell will stand on the outside again.
La Cañada will look to win the battles up front and pressure opposing offenses, as it’ll switch to mostly zone defenses. Jadon Henry and Cole Reeb return to start at the two corner spots.
“We're real strong on defense,” coach Sims said. “If our defense stops some teams everything will be fine, we'll be pretty good this year.”
Offensively, the Spartans need to replace their most reliable offensive weapon and 1,000-yard rusher, Andy Paynter, from last year. Sims looks to a deep stable of running backs to replace Paynter with one likely to emerge from the pack.
Seniors Henry, Greenberg, Brad Woolf all return after seeing carries last year with juniors Cole Reeb, Donnie Breneman, Juan Carrasquerro and sophomore Mario Martinez all figuring into the equation.
Wide receiver Ryan Martin and Murray return as familiar targets for Fuelling.
“We’ve had seven-on-seven and different things to let the receivers mesh together and I feel like my offensive line are all great guys,” Fuelling said of the differences on offense this year. “I think we’re going to be really good on offense.”
Hopes are the improvements will lead La Cañada to a winning season. It won its opener and finale in 2012 and finished 2-8, 1-4 in the Rio Hondo League for fourth place. Monrovia is ranked No. 1 in the CIF Southern Section Mid-Valley Division and San Marino is fifth, with both expected to battle for the top two positions in league.
As in recent years, La Cañada will likely battle it out with Temple City and South Pasadena for the third and final playoff spot offered in the Rio Hondo, Sims said.
“We want to win more than we lose,” Sims said. “I try not to put a target, like how many wins, how many losses, I just want to perform better. My goal is for teams to have respect for La Cañada. … If that means going 2-8 or 8-2 or 10-0, whatever it takes to earn that respect is my goal.”