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The Age of Excellence: An 8-man establishment

Santa Clarita Christian football has been on the rise long before its 2008 CIF championship

Posted: December 27, 2009 11:18 p.m.
Updated: December 28, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Santa Clarita Christian running back Collin Keoshian rushes during the 2008 regular season. Keoshian and the Cardinals burst onto the 8-man football scene by winning their first of back-to-back CIF titles.

 
Santa Clarita Christian football has quietly been one of the most successful programs in the Santa Clarita Valley over the course of the decade.

The Cardinals’ back-to-back wins over Faith Baptist in the 2008 and 2009 CIF-Southern Section Division I 8-Man Championship game made SCCS something even greater — a state powerhouse in 8-Man Football.

Though the program has depended heavily on Collin Keoshian, the Brigham Young-bound player who is one of the greatest 8-Man players in this state’s history, the past couple of years, the Cardinals had success before him.

The roots of that success reach back to early in the decade, when Garrick Moss took over the program in 2003.

After four years as head coach, Dave Beddoe moved on to coach and teach in Washington, and Moss, who helped him start the program as the school’s athletic director, took over the team.

The young coach readily admits he didn’t have much experience in 8-man football before it came to SCCS.

“Back in 1998, we began looking into starting football here,” Moss says. “I came from Camarillo (High School), and I never even knew 8-man existed to be honest with you. A lot of it is because they don’t get a lot of recognition.”

The Cardinals would soon begin to the change that.

It helped that the young program was blessed with talents like Stephen Mercier. Moss describes him as someone who would be responsible for three or four touchdowns a game.

Orlando Pena, who is now an assistant with the program, was in the backfield with Mercier and was an All-CIF selection in football, soccer and baseball.

“Looking back at some of those first teams, we had some pretty good size, speed and talent, but we were just getting used to the game, not knowing what the strengths of our system were,” Moss says. “We were running and passing out of pro-sets and the I-formation.”

An important change came when offensive coordinator Jon Stone incorporated the single-wing formation, according to Moss.

“We had a couple of different players who could run and throw the ball in 2002,” says Moss, explaining that the formation was perfect for teams who have more of a running quarterback whose arm is good enough to keep defenses honest.

Eventually, the new formation clicked.

In 2003, the duo of Pena and Mercier combined for 70 touchdowns. Mercier, despite playing quarterback a majority of the time, led Division I 8-Man football in yards from scrimmage that season with the help of 1,378 rushing yards. Pena led the Heritage League in tackles with 135.

More importantly, tradition and accomplishment had been established in the program.

But SCCS learned a tough lesson in the CIF-SS 8-Man Large Championship game.

The Cardinals lost 44-0 to Riverside Christian, which now plays 11-man football.

“That’s got to put a fire in your heart,” Mercier later recalled to The Signal. “The hurt we felt after that game. ... We just got destroyed.”

But the coaches and players know it helped them down the road.

“We got blown out pretty good, but I think that was a good experience,” says assistant head coach John Sanna. “We learned after that, and I think it’s something you can only do after you’ve been through something like that.”

Sanna says he became a regular fixture in the film room, and he now watches other team’s videos as many as 10 times to learn tendencies and share observations with Craig Keoshian, Collin’s father and SCCS’ defensive coordinator.

Moss says the players began to pick up on the importance of preparation.

“The last few years we watched film two or three nights a week, and that started to rub off on the players, who would ask, ‘Hey could we have another film night?’” Moss says. “The players began to know what they need to learn.”

A freak accident blunted the team’s chances of returning to the title game the following season. Mercier suffered third-degree burns trying to save a campfire from going out of control the week before the team was eliminated in the 2004 quarterfinals.

In 2005, the Cardinals had what Moss calls a “rebuilding year” by the program’s established standard.

However, Moss still contends the team’s 6-3 record would have qualified it for playoffs were it not for a flawed “power points” system that determined seeding and was changed the next year.

In 2006, Keoshian burst on the scene, almost single-handedly changing the landscape of the sport. Games where Keoshian’s stat line showed a dozen tackles, at least three rushing touchdowns and one more score on a throw or catch became regular occurrences.

The rest of the Heritage League began to feel the wrath of the Cardinals.

That year, Keoshian’s freshman campaign, the team was stopped in the quarterfinals by View Park, the eventual champions.

In 2007, it was Joshua Springs that sent the Cardinals home early, this time in the semifinals.

The following year, not much would stop the Cardinals or Keoshian.

They ran on Faith Baptist for 350 yards in the 2008 title game. The Cardinals had 68 plays on offense, and 66 of them were rushes.

This year, the team won its first outright Heritage League title, an impressive feat considering the league produced three of the CIF’s four semifinalists.

Keoshian, who was recruited by BYU as a linebacker, carved a niche in the history of both the school and California 8-Man football. He finished his career with 102 rushing touchdowns, a state record, and 6,357 rushing yards, the second-highest total in state history.

And the school has, without question, established a new reputation.

Over the past two summers, 8-man football coaches from as far away as Arizona and Louisiana have sought out advice from Moss and his staff on teaching methods and how to implement the single-wing.

Pena has given coaching clinics on to coaches on football technique, his specialty with SCCS.

Sanna is preparing a workshop over the summer on making the most of film.

“It’s funny now to hear people calling us a ‘powerhouse’ and now calling us a ‘dominant team,’” Sanna says. “The first few years, nobody gave us any respect at all. After 2003, nobody still gave us any. It’s nice now that people consider us a powerhouse.”

Moss lists the talent and coaches and their collective cohesion as the biggest reasons for the current run.

“Planning has been huge, we’ve grown as a coaching staff over the years and we’ve grown in our understanding of what we have as a program,” Moss says. “(The success) has been kind of a combination of everything.”

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