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Climbing the Canyons

College football: COC has turned the page on last year’s disappointments, sits at 6-1

Posted: October 20, 2013 8:02 p.m.
Updated: October 20, 2013 8:02 p.m.

College of the Canyons' Wes Johnson (47), right, and his teammates bring down Antelope Valley College running back Ron Howard (22) for a loss in the third quarter at COC on Saturday, Oct. 12.

 

After Saturday’s 44-23 road victory over rival Ventura College, College of the Canyons football players engaged in the usual post-game routine.

First, high fives and best wishes were exchanged with the opposing team. Following that, Cougars free safety Wyatt Hixon led the reciting of the COC player’s pledge before head coach Ted Iacenda capped the night with a pep talk.

This may have seemed like business as usual to the casual observer. But to close followers of the COC football program, and to Cougars players and coaches alike, Saturday’s post-game pomp and circumstance was the culmination of something much greater.

In defeating Ventura, last year’s California Community College Athletic Association (CCCAA) National Division, Northern Conference champion, the Cougars moved to 6-1 and cleared the most obvious hurdle remaining on their regular season schedule.

Now, after a disappointing season a year ago, and posting the worst conference season in school history in 2011, COC has reestablished itself as a formidable community college football program.

What a difference a year can make.

“This summer everybody really bought into the system and clicked,” said COC linebacker Joey Cicoria, who took his share of licks on a team that struggled with consistency a year ago after graduating from Hart High School in 2012. “We really are a strong family unit this season. We hang out together, we sit together at school­ — it’s unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of.”

Last season was a mixed bag for the Cougars. The team did finish 7-4, but two of those wins came by forfeit, and COC was outscored by a combined 93-37 margin in those two games. The year ended with a 24-21 loss to Santa Ana in the So Cal Bowl on November 17, and in January, Garett Tujague resigned as the team’s head coach in order to pursue a job as an offensive line coach at BYU.

On February 8, the Cougars announced that Iacenda would replace Tujague as the interim head coach. Given the direction of the program this season, it’s hard to imagine a situation in which COC doesn’t reexamine the ‘interim’ label.

A former star athlete at Hart, Iacenda received a scholarship to play football at USC in 1996 before injuries got in the way of his collegiate career.

Now, Iacenda is giving back to his hometown in a big way, redefining the culture of a program that as recently as 2008 finished 12-1 and narrowly missed a spot in the state title game if not for a heartbreaking, last second loss to Mt. SAC in the Southern California Championship.

For Iacenda, the remolding of the Cougars’ identity began with attention to detail on defense.

“We have a sophomore-laden veteran group that I’ve found to be extremely coachable,” Iacenda said. “When I took over I sat down with the other coaches and players and talked about what my beliefs and defensive philosophies were, and we all saw eye to eye.”

That much has been apparent.

After surrendering an average of 36 points per game a year ago, COC’s defense is now among the best in the state. The Cougars have cut last year’s totals by an average of three touchdowns per contest, holding opponents to an average of 16 points a showing in 2013.

As much as anything else, Cougars players insist that a large part of the transformation has been the team’s strength and conditioning program.

“We seriously bust our behinds,” said Cougars running back Matt “Cheese” Bowen, who dropped 50 pounds during the offseason. “I used to be 230, now I’m 180. I think a lot of people didn’t even know what my real name was, we run hours a day on end.”

Not only do Bowen and his teammates believe that they are in better shape than every team they face, there are statistics to support it — the Cougars have outscored opponents 147-52 in the second half of games this season.

That’s not to say the offense hasn’t been on point.

Since its 17-0 shutout victory over College of the Desert on September 17, COC has put up 37 points or more in its last four games.

Yet, while COC’s defensive turnaround has come down to basics such as conditioning, experience and discipline, the Cougars offense has been dynamic in an uncharacteristic way.

The Cougars have run a two-quarterback-system all season, calling upon the services of freshmen signal callers Jake Dashnaw and Tony Dawson. Dashnaw fits the role of the traditional pocket passer, while Dawson keeps teams on their heels with his ability to extend plays with his legs.

Despite both being freshmen, Dashnaw and Dawson have demonstrated poise and solid decision-making skills, combining for 16 total touchdowns with just three interceptions.

“At the end of the day, this is college football,” said Iacenda when talking about his quarterbacks. “These guys are playing against 20, sometimes 21-year-old men, and they’ve done a great job. We try to put them in good situations, and so far they’ve succeeded in those situations.”

After defeating Ventura, COC now enters its bye week undefeated in conference play and looking to keep the momentum of a six-game winning streak alive.

A year ago today, the Cougars were 2-5 following a loss to the Pirates (4-3 after the forfeits were awarded). At that juncture, the Cougars had been outscored 287-225.

The Cougars have given up just 116 points this season, meaning they’d have to give up an average of 57 points per game to their opponents for the remainder of the season to equal 2012’s midseason total, an unlikely prospect.

But if 2013 has taught us anything, it’s that these Cougars are not interested in how things played out last season.

With Saturday’s victory over Ventura, things have come full circle for a COC program that controls its destiny with games remaining against Moorpark, Cerritos and Allan Hancock. As of Oct. 7, the Cougars were ranked No.7 in the state, although that ranking is sure to climb given the team’s past two victories.

Furthermore, Iacenda and his coaching staff will look to rebuild the COC program using this season as a foundation for success.  That process can be challenging given the high rate of player turnover at a two-year college.

But according to COC defensive coordinator Dan Corbet, who played linebacker for the Cougars during the 2000-2001 season, the formula for program building is simple.

“We are going after kids with good character who want to put in the time and the effort,” Corbet said. “You have to invest to get the results.”

It’s clear that COC has made some investments.

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