Varsity football at Lathrop High School is nothing new.
The Spartans are now gearing up for their third straight year at high school football’s pinnacle level – turning to sophomores during the first two years to help field a squad during the program’s infancy.
But there’s something special about the 2011 team that gives head coach Jesse Rodriguez a good feeling. It’s the first time in the history of the program that the school will field a team that includes a group that started at the school as freshmen when the school opened.
“It‘s the first time that we’ve had a team that has gone through the program, and there’s something special about that when you’re starting to establish a tradition,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of the kids that we have out now are third-year varsity players, and they have that sense of pride that comes with being involved with this for four years.”
And it’s been a rocky road.
In 2009 when playing an independent schedule without a senior class, Lathrop went winless in nine games.
Last season, the Spartans won a pair of their non-league games in preparation for the perennially difficult VOL season – beating McClatchy High School of Sacramento on the road and picking a home win against North Highlands.
While the early wins gave them a sense of hope, they didn’t win a game for the rest of the season as they worked their way through the tough VOL schedule.
But all of that adversity, Rodriguez said, only made the core group of his squad even stronger as they became focused on what they need to do in order to improve in search of their first league win in 2011.
More than 40 players have routinely been showing up for preseason workouts – more than any other previous season – and a bond between the players that have been on the field with one another for the last four years is starting to shine through.
He sees it in quarterback Elijah Cash and running backs Andrew Aquino, Christian Pena and Dennis Johnson – the group that makes up the core of his wishbone offense.
“We’ve gotten a lot better at it. Our quarterback has been a starter for about 2 ½ years now, and our running backs have been around for a longtime too,” Aquino said. “We’ve been putting in a lot of new stuff on offense, so we should be more efficient in running it.”
That bond, however, just doesn’t stop with the offense.
He sees it in two-way lineman Ross Downum and linebacker Ricky Chavez.
Most of all, however, he sees it in the younger players who are looking up to the guys that are setting themselves apart as leaders and setting the tone for a young program that he believes has the potential to grow into something great.
“I think that our biggest strength as a team is the fact that a lot of our guys have played together for as long as they have,” Rodriguez said. “Almost 80 percent of the guys on our roster have played varsity for at least three years, and that’s really starting to show this season. The last few years we’ve just been getting pounded, and I think that the guys are ready to step up and show what they’re capable of doing.”
And Cash is going to make sure that the rest of the team knows that there is a standard that they’re going to meet this year.
“We’re not going 2-8 again. That drives us,” said the quarterback. “A lot of the players, including myself, worked out a lot in the offseason, and did the extra stuff to make our team better. We had bigger kids last year, but we can get the job done because we know what we’re doing.
“We’re a lot smarter than we were and overall we’re much more conditioned.”
By the time they do reach the VOL season, there is no doubt that they’ll be battle tested.
Lathrop opens up its season on Sept. 2 against Escalon – the reigning Division-III state champion which is carrying a national ranking into the season.
Rodriguez said when he made the two-year agreement last season to play the Cougars he was under the assumption Escalon were having a “down” year, and had no idea that the Cougars make the run that they did. Most of those players will be back this season.
“We’re excited to go out there and play,” Rodriguez said. “With them being the defending state champions, they’re going to shut that town down – they’re going to have everybody there. It should be exciting for our kids. It’ll be exciting to go out and play against the best.
“What better chance can you get to see how you match up?”