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Back in the valley

Four Santa Clarita Valley high school stars have returned to play football locally

Posted: September 8, 2009 4:37 p.m.
Updated: September 5, 2009 4:30 a.m.

(From left to right) Ryan McKillop, Kenny Shanahan, Mike Spagnola and Justin McKillop are expected to be major factors for the Cougars defense in 2009. (Right photos, top to bottom) Justin McKillop, playing for Saugus High. Ryan McKillop playing for Saugus High. Kenny Shanahan with Canyon and Mike Spagnola with Canyon.

 

At a party in the Santa Clarita Valley and at a college some 3,000 miles plus away, two discussions mirrored each other.

Four linebackers, all products of the Santa Clarita Valley, talked about a return.

And now they’re back.

Saugus graduates Ryan and Justin McKillop and Canyon graduates Mike Spagnola and Kenny Shanahan each spent time away from Santa Clarita Valley football. All four are expected to be major factors for College of the Canyons in 2009.

“They’re critical,” said College of the Canyons head football coach Garett Tujague.

This foursome makes likely the most accomplished Santa Clarita Valley-bred linebackers that College of the Canyons has ever seen.

All four were All-Foothill League players and considered some of the best defensive football players in the Santa Clarita Valley during their time in high school.

The McKillop twins, who transferred to COC after a year playing football for Division I-AA Wagner College in New York, were three-season all-league linebackers for the Centurions. They will play at the outside linebacker spots for the Cougars.

Spagnola, who took a year off from football, was an All-CIF defensive lineman at Canyon. He will play inside linebacker for COC.

Shanahan, who played baseball for Cal State Los Angeles in 2007 before not playing sports in 2008, was a key member of the 2006 Canyon High state championship team. He will be in a hybrid position that his part linebacker, part safety.

The McKillops say they grew homesick in Staten Island.  

Ryan wasn’t getting much playing time.

Justin started twice, recorded 23 tackles and a sack.

“It was a good experience,” Ryan, 19, says of Wagner. “Any opportunity I have to go and play at the next level is good, but it wasn’t what I expected.” Losses mounted, seven in total, and the brothers began to think about returning home.

“I guess you could say that we stuck it out the first couple of weeks ... we stuck it out then told our dad we were thinking about coming back.”

Justin, 19, explains that the brothers were a package deal for whatever school they were going to.

Though that might have had an effect on the recruiting of the McKillops, Justin says that didn’t matter.

“Unbreakable,” Justin says of the brothers’ bond. “We’ve been with each other all the time. We share the same car, take the same classes, pretty much do everything together.”

The package deal was no problem for College of the Canyons.

“I would loved to have told them don’t go out there,” Tujague says of the brothers’ departure from the valley. “If I say those things, I’m a negative recruiter. But when guys leave and come back, there’s a bigger sense of commitment. They found out that College of the Canyons is the best place to be. Not because I told them, or their dad told them, or their high school coach told them. They found out by themselves.”

Spagnola also found out by himself how much he missed the game.

Disappointed by the recruiting process out of high school and burnt out, the 2008 Canyon High graduate decided not to play football in 2008 and just take classes at COC.

“It took a lot out of me, all those years, especially busting my butt at Canyon. It was tough. It was really depressing,” says Spagnola, who adds that he got offers from smaller schools out of high school but wasn’t interested. “The best thing to do was get over it. That six months (away from football) let me know I still needed football even though it let me down.”

Spagnola is the only one of the foursome that is a freshman.

The 6-foot-1-inch, 225-pound 19-year-old said he didn’t lose anything being away from football a year. But he gained desire.

That desire was rekindled at a party last year.

Shanahan was there as well.

Shanahan remembers it being former Canyon High wide receiver Mark Urbina’s birthday party.

Urbina was playing for Moorpark College at the time, but mentioned to Shanahan and Spagnola that he was thinking about transferring to COC.

The three later made the collective decision to play football in the Santa Clarita Valley again.

Shanahan transferred to Canyon High in 2006 from Stockdale High in Bakersfield during the season.

He made an early tackle on current University of Colorado and former Moorpark High running back Darrell Scott that set the pace for the Cowboys defense in the 2006 CIF-Southern Section Northern Division championship victory.

But after football season, he displayed a power stroke on the baseball diamond and received a partial scholarship to Cal State L.A.

His football days were seemingly over.

“I went back to (watch COC football) ... and realized it was my last opportunity to play football,” Shanahan says. “I didn’t want to regret it. I had a talk with the (Cal State L.A.) baseball coaches (and told them) it wasn’t anything against them at all.”

Shanahan batted .369 and was an All-California Collegiate Athletic Association honorable mention outfielder in 2008. So his baseball future was bright.

Asked if football was his passion, Shanahan says: “Definitely. Definitely. Really there’s nothing like playing under the lights.”

He hasn’t closed the door on baseball, as he will play for the Cougars baseball team in the spring, but Shanahan will start tonight against Antelope Valley at the raider position, which is a hybrid safety-linebacker position.

Tujague says despite the depth his team has at the linebacker position, all four players are expected to get significant playing time.

All four say they are hoping College of the Canyons is a stepping stone to furthering their football careers.

And it’s one of the main reasons why they are back — back home.

 

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