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Sondheimer: The top story lines as high school football starts

Mater Dei quarterback Elijah Brown scampers for extra yardage while St. John Bosco defenders give chase.
Mater Dei quarterback Elijah Brown scampers for extra yardage while St. John Bosco defenders Benny Lockhart (14) and Kyngstonn Villiamu-Asa (27) give chase at Santa Ana Stadium on April 17.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The 2021 high school football season begins this weekend with a 10-week regular season schedule, four weeks of playoffs and a week of state bowl games. That’s the best-case scenario. Since the coronavirus is still around, everyone needs to prepare for interruptions, interventions and adjustments when positive test results are discovered.

Here’s some story lines to watch:

Parity has vanished.

Predicting which teams might be succeed in Southern Section Division 1 has become too easy. Bellflower St. John Bosco has reached the championship game eight consecutive seasons. Santa Ana Mater Dei has been to the final every season since 2016. There is no parity. These two programs have separated themselves in a big way.

That doesn’t mean opponents won’t try to shock the world. Anaheim Servite, Corona Centennial, Chatsworth Sierra Canyon and Norco can dream of being competitive in the Division 1 playoffs this season. But facts are facts and history would need to change in dramatic and surprising fashion.

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Technology advances

A drone over a football game in 2016. Drones are used to film practices.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

Drones filming practices. QR codes for game programs. Ghostbuster-like cleaning devices to spray on bleachers. Giant 60-inch TV sets on the sideline. iPads to watch live replays. Computer programs to send out individual highlights. Video scoreboards. Nutritionists. New lightweight helmets that cost $1,000 each to cushion hits. There’s no lack of technological advances if your budget can afford it.

Now there’s a Zoom coordinator. Yes, an assistant coach who sets up Zoom video calls and sends out the email link to enable coaches to hold eight different meetings with position players using their phone or computer.

Sherman Oaks Notre Dame has a 100-gallon water container to hydrate players during football games.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

Hudl has come up with a camera that automatically focuses on game action and livestreams practices or games and uploads to a team’s Hudl library. There’s also an app from GoRout that allows coaches to upload opponents’ plays and send a signal to their athlete’s belt pack (iPhone on waist) during scout practices, getting rid of hand signals and play cards. Sherman Oaks Notre Dame has purchased a 100-gallon container for water on the sideline, so water bottles can be used individually while maintaining social distancing.

New playoff system

For the first time, the City Section and Southern Section will place schools in playoff divisions at the end of the regular season based on performance and power rankings rather than what a school did in recent years. The Southern Section is going to rank eligible playoff teams from using CalPreps.com and place them in 14 divisions for 11-man football.

It should lead to more competitive early games in the playoffs but also enable schools in strong leagues winning multiple section titles. Much focus will be on the Trinity League to see how many schools get placed outside of Division 1.

The high school football season starts on Thursday. Here are the games scheduled for Week Zero.

St. Bernard transfers

The exodus of players from Playa del Rey St. Bernard following the brief tenure of coach Manuel Douglas will strengthen several teams with top transfer students. It looks similar to when Harbor City Narbonne and Los Angeles Hawkins had a similar exodus of players after coaching changes. Mission Hills Bishop Alemany and Inglewood have picked up key St. Bernard players.

Big games

Aug. 27: Long Beach Poly plays at Gardena Serra in an annual matchup that usually gets decided on a final drive. Santa Ana Mater Dei travels to Texas to play Duncanville.

Oct. 1: St. John Bosco and Mater Dei begin the Trinity League at St. John Bosco. Mission Hills Bishop Alemany hosts Gardena Serra in the Mission League. Wilmington Banning will be at San Pedro to decide Marine League title.

Oct. 8: Los Alamitos will play host to Huntington Beach Edison to decide the Sunset League title.

Oct. 15: Norco, which ended Centennial’s 57-game league winning streak in the spring, hosts the Huskies in a Big VIII League rematch.

Oct. 29: Servite will end its league season with a road game at St. John Bosco. The East L.A. Classic returns with Garfield facing Roosevelt at East L.A. College. San Clemente will be at Mission Viejo in the South Coast League title decider.

St. John Bosco is No. 1 and Santa Ana Mater Dei No. 2 in Times’ top 25 rankings

Coaching challenges

The separation between the haves and have-nots has never been wider, from Los Angeles Loyola having 94 freshmen come out to play football to some City Section programs beginning this week with just four ninth-graders.

It helps to have stability in programs, but even veteran coaches are facing the continuing challenges of dealing with depleted rosters, constant fundraising and the battle to attract quality assistants despite little pay incentives. COVID-19 stoppages remain possible, so coaches will have to decide whether to schedule games against much stronger opponents if they are the only ones available or not play at all.

While last spring was all about finding a way to reward loyal players by finding ways to play games, get film and not worry about wins and losses, this fall will be about starting over, renewing program culture and selling the positives of playing football. Lots of programs don’t have enough players for freshman teams. Others don’t have enough players to have junior varsity teams — at least to start the season.

An education-based high school sports experience is supposed to be about teaching life lessons. Winning always helps, but getting teenagers to compete and perform at their best is the ultimate goal with the hope it leads to success off the field.


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