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Column: Simi Valley turns to emergency replacements to deliver victory

Simi Valley quarterback Steele Pizzella, left, and senior linebacker Will Bush pose for a photo.
Simi Valley freshman quarterback Steele Pizzella, left, and senior linebacker Will Bush have made key contributions after being reserves.
(Jim Benkert)

A “next man up” mentality is part of sports lore, when a player steps in after another goes down in a seamless transition. Except that doesn’t always happen. More frequently, there’s chaos, disruption and uncertainty.

That means a coach has every right to celebrate when an unknown reserve actually fulfills the replacement role at moment’s notice, and no one is happier than Simi Valley football coach Jim Benkert.

Somehow, someway, the Pioneers are 8-0 after losing the team’s two top players to injuries, quarterback Travis Throckmorton and linebacker Malachi Hannah.

Last week against rival Royal, freshman quarterback Steele Pizzella completed 12 of 15 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-6 victory. Senior linebacker Will Bush recorded 18 tackles, including 11 solo. Both were backups filling in for the star players.

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“It almost makes me smile to give an opportunity to a backup,” Benkert said. “It’s been great to have them step up.”

There are some schools — Santa Ana Mater Dei and Bellflower St. John Bosco come to mind — that have backups who are not normal backups. Simi Valley, which suits up 38 players, does its best to find replacements in case of injuries.

Benkert has been fortunate this season. When COVID-19 protocols resulted in last-minute loss of several starters before a game against Oxnard Pacifica, he was forced to move up from the freshman team Kevin Ilano, who started at center. The Pioneers won 63-34.

The backups will have to perform well again Friday against Thousand Oaks before Throckmorton and Hannah are tentatively scheduled to return Oct. 29 against Agoura.

“He’s special,” Benkert said of Pizzella.

“He was great,” Benkert said Bush.

Hall of Fame: The Southern Section inducted its 37th Hall of Fame class Wednesday. One of the inductees was former Newhall Hart football coach Mike Herrington, one of only 12 in state history to win more than 300 games as a head coach. He recalls a great lesson those starting out in coaching might want to remember.

Herrington was twice turned down to be head coach at his alma mater. The second time, he left Hart to become head coach at Bellflower for one year. He was angry after not getting the Hart job but received valuable advice from another coach.

“Don’t burn your bridges,” Herrington said he was told. “I know you’re mad, but you don’t know what’s going to come up in the future.”

Said Herrington: “Even though I was a very upset, man, I took that advice and it came to fruition.”

He applied for the Hart job a third time in 1989 and spent 31 years as head coach, winning seven Southern Section titles.

Hart is in the process of changing its nickname from the Indians. Southern Section historian John Dahlem suggested, “The Hart Herringtons.”

Girls’ basketball rising: The girls’ basketball scene in Southern California continues to attract exceptional talent. The latest player to arrive is junior guard Jada Williams, a UCLA commit who moved to La Jolla Country Day after attending Blue Springs High in Missouri.

It sets the stage for what could be outstanding games up and down Southern California, featuring the likes of Juju Watkins of Chatsworth Sierra Canyon, Londynn Jones of Corona Centennial, Gabriela Jaquez of Camarillo, and Kennedy Smith of Etiwanda.

Bowling ball: Running back Houston Thomas of Anaheim Servite loves bowling so much that for his 19th birthday Thursday, his parents bought him bowling shoes and his girlfriend got him a bowling ball. Then he went out and bowled over Santa Margarita for 193 yards rushing and three touchdowns.

City Section record: Franklin receiver Hector Ceballos set a City Section record last week when he made 27 catches against Eagle Rock. It was one short of a state record.


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