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To understand how improbable it is to find West Hills Chaminade (7-5) playing for the Southern Section Division 2 football championship on Friday night against top-seeded Chatsworth Sierra Canyon (12-1), you have to go back to August, when signs of doom were everywhere.
During a scrimmage against Harbor City Narbonne, while the Eagles were getting blown away on offense and defense, thoughts of an 0-10 season were being mentioned.
After losses to begin the season against Westlake Village Oaks Christian and Lancaster Paraclete, coach Ed Croson offered this assessment to his assistant coaches before a game against Lake Balboa Birmingham: “If we lose tonight, we won’t win a game.”
“That’s how bad it looked at the time,” Croson said earlier this week.
Chaminade defeated Lake Balboa Birmingham 41-14 and began a remarkable turnaround that’s testament to the coaching staff, players getting better every week and the commitment by everyone to focus on what they can control.
“Nobody got down on themselves and we started working real hard in practice,” junior quarterback Jaylen Henderson said. “As a leader, when things were not looking up, I encouraged my teammates to dig down deep and push harder. We showed tenacity through every adversity.”
Croson, who won four City titles coaching at Birmingham, found himself in a position he hadn’t been in for 40 years. Six freshmen and 12 sophomores were forced to take on important roles, and Croson didn’t know how they’d respond. He said it brought back memories of 1979, when he was the junior varsity coach at Panorama City St. Genevieve under the legendary Lindon Crow.
“We were playing kids who weren’t ready,” he said. “They were little and they were 15.”
Chaminade went back to the basics and kept things simple.
“They were so young,” Croson said. “We’re not even into our normal playbook and it’s game 13. You can only stack on what kids can absorb. We don’t have any choice.”
Henderson has been one of the most prominent leaders for the Eagles. He came from Narbonne last spring after starting the first five games for the Gauchos until All-City quarterback Jake Garcia took over. Henderson is 16 and has been making steady improvement.
“I started reading defenses better. My pocket awareness got better,” he said.
Henderson has passed for nearly 2,500 yards and 19 touchdowns. Running back Willy Camacho came from Mission Hills Bishop Alemany, where he was going to be a backup. He had six touchdowns in a playoff win over Norco.
Freshman receiver Ian Duarte came to Chaminade known for his baseball skills but has been a phenom in football after being put into the lineup midway through the season. He’s averaging 23.3 yards a catch. “He’s made a huge impact,” Henderson said.
Isaac Gallegos, a safety, earned an award for being a top tackler. “He’s just dominated on defense,” Croson said.
Punter Jack Stonehouse, a junior, and sophomore kicker Chase Meyer have been standouts while saving the Eagles repeatedly with clutch efforts.
Lineman JP Reilly has been mashing people on offense and defense.
Yes, Chaminade got a bye into the final because San Clemente was removed from the playoffs on Tuesday for having an ineligible player. But the Eagles were packed and ready to head to San Clemente on Friday while a judge was deciding whether the Tritons’ ban would stand. Croson ordered chicken from Costco that was going to be served to the players for a team dinner.
“The food is being cooked,” he said Friday morning while not knowing if his team would board a bus at noon.
The chicken dinner was canceled after the game was canceled. It’s been that kind of a season for the Eagles. They go with the flow.
“This has been a weird year,” Croson said.