As Central Catholic High School takes the field at Carson’s StubHub Center for Friday’s Division 4 state bowl championship, keep the number 32 in mind.
The Raiders, 14-1, who take on 12-2 Bakersfield Christian at 4 p.m., will be playing a 16th game for a second straight season, making them the first team in California prep history to play 32 games over a two-year span.
“It’s an awful lot of football for coaches, coaches’ wives and the players,” said Central Catholic coach Roger Canepa. “It’s a grind. You just hope you have energy at the end and we do right now. But I really think it’s too much. Even though we won a state championship, and that’s great, I don’t know that we needed all these extra games.”
By comparison, NFL regular seasons span 16 games. In college football, Division I seasons currently are capped at 14 games, while the finalists in Division II and III will play 15 games.
That’s a lot of football by anyone’s measure, and it begs the question as to whether the elite level of high school football is asking too much – physically and emotionally – of teenaged athletes and their coaches.
“It’s a long, long, long season,” said Mark Loureiro, whose 2010 Escalon team went 14-1 and won the state Division 3 bowl. “We have college kids coming back to visit, and they start their seasons after us and finish before us. And those kids have trainers, tutors and nutritionists.
“There’s only a few kids, a few teams that make it that far, but it takes a lot out of you and you feel it the next year. It felt to us like the seasons ran together, and the next year we were the defending state champs and returned darn near the whole team, but physically and mentally we were worn down.”
Before getting too deep into the toll of playing the extended seasons, it has to be said that the teams wouldn’t have it any other way. All of the coaches and players addressing the issue said that it’s a great honor to be playing in the state bowls and they’d much rather be in this position than being in the stands this weekend.
“It’s tough, but we’re always told that football is a marathon and not a sprint, and that’s silly but it’s also true,” said Central Catholic senior two-way lineman Spencer Stark. “I noticed the length of the season a lot more this year since it’s my last season. It’s a grind all the time and it’s nice that it’s coming to an end, but it’s bittersweet.
“You get used getting prepared for every game, every play. Coach Canepa does a good job of keeping us tough during the year and the stuff we do during the summers helps us get ready for a season that can go this long. We want to play as long a season as possible, and if that’s the goal in the back of your head you can get through a lot of stuff.”
The difference this season for Central Catholic was that the Raiders were heavy favorites all season to reach this game, opening the season ranked as high as No. 6 nationally among small schools. So even in the summer they were preparing to play a game on the Saturday before Christmas.
Such wasn’t the case last year with Oakdale, which rode a magical season to a Sac-Joaquin Section Division 3 crown and a berth in the school’s first Division 2 state bowl – its 16th game.
“Our kids were fine with being done after winning the section title last year, and then we got the opportunity to play in the NorCal game,” said Mustangs coach Trent Merzon. “The fallout came when it was all over because our kids were tired. We’d never be successful at Oakdale if we didn’t share athletes between sports, but the kids have only so much to give. A couple kids didn’t have it in them to wrestle or to play basketball, and you can’t measure how many kids felt that way.
“Having said that, I know we’ll do everything in our power starting next month to be able to extend our season next year. All coaches and players are envious of the teams that are still playing. I know I’d love to be playing this week.”
Central Catholic senior two-way starter Donovin Townsend will be stepping directly from the football field onto the basketball court, where he runs the Raiders’ offense as point guard. Last season, after 16 football games, his transition from football to basketball was neither smooth nor short.
“You’re beat down and tired and in basketball you use a completely different set of muscles,” Townsend said. “It takes as long as two months before you get your legs under you. Until then a lot of your shots are short, your defense isn’t too good. It’s rough. Right now, the coaches have a strong concept of how long the seasons are, so they’re giving us a little more rest.”
In 2009, Modesto Christian became the first Stanislaus District school to win a state bowl game, riding the leadership of Isaiah Burse to a wild victory over Francis Parker to complete a 15-0 season. Coach Mike Parsons left Salida for Clovis West after that crusade, and remembers it more as a wild ride than a grind.
“I don’t remember being tired,” said Parsons, who resigned his coaching position at Clovis West last week. “The stress of getting a team on track and winning every week is very tough, but when you’re having fun you’re not real tired.
“Looking back I’d take a 16-week season over going 5-7 every day. For us that year, Week 10 was Escalon and Week 11 brought the playoffs and Colfax and it was fun being in the middle of that. Then we had Escalon again and got really excited about playing Central. For us it was all a new and exciting challenge.”
If playing 16 games in a season is a problem, then what can be done about it? The coaches seem to agree that while it wouldn’t be prudent to shave anything from the 10-game regular season, there could be tweaks at the section level.
“Everybody wants to be in the playoffs, and I still feel they take too many teams,” Loureiro said. “If they still want the full playoffs you’d have to cut from the regular season, and you can’t do that. I have to believe the kids playing this weekend are glad to see the end of the tunnel.”
Bakersfield Christian earned a first-round playoff bye, which is the reason this is the Eagles’ 15th game.
“We’re all getting to the end and are sad that it’s almost over, but high school football seasons shouldn’t go 15 or 16 games,” said Bakersfield Christian coach Jerald Pierucci. “We really needed that bye because we had a week zero game and after our week 3 bye played for seven straight weeks.”
As much as this game has been the goal for Central Catholic since the final gun of last year’s 66-7 bowl victory over Santa Fe Christian, the grind of the season is apparent.
It shows up in the circles beneath the eyes of the coaching and support staff, and it especially shows on the bruises upon bruises on the bodies of the young athletes.
“I like the NorCal and the state games, but maybe they should cut-out some playoff games,” Canepa said. “After the McClymonds game I looked at some of my linemen and saw the deep bruises and the battle scars and I really felt bad.
“You know, I get tired too, but I don’t tell the kids that.”
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2150. Follow him on Twitter @modestobeek.