First published in the Oct. 16 print issue of the Glendale News Press.
Hoover High’s varsity football team may have fallen one victory shy of tying the school record of six wins in a row achieved in 1953, but their 5-2 start this season certainly merited attention.
Especially when one considers that the team played its first game in nearly three years on Aug. 20.
Although the Tornados have cooled down recently with losses to Castaic and Maywood CES (they also faced an unbeaten foe Friday night, after the News-Press’ deadline), their 5-0 start remains the second-best in the school’s history and comes on the heels of what essentially was a total reboot of the program. The first and most prominent complication this year has been the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced some players to miss time on the field.
For head coach Azad Herabidian, it’s only the latest complication in his rebuild, which was ultimately triggered by an infamous school brawl on Oct. 3, 2018, that canceled the remainder of the 2018 season. The fallout left Herabidian, hired in 2019, with three players in the program — Athena Kelechian, Kevin Amiri and Gabriel De La O, now seniors.
“Those are the guys that really are the heart of what we do here, because they were the ones that stuck around and helped us build a foundation,” Herabidian said. “That’s what’s so valuable about kids like Kevin, Gabriel and Athena, is that they’re reliable.”
Kelechian is currently relishing her time as the team manager, standing alongside the varsity squad to assist during practices and games. Team captains De La O and Amiri, the only two seniors who have been on the team all four years of their high school careers, have each enjoyed fine seasons. At defensive tackle, De La O has accumulated 18 tackles (six solo, 12 assists) with two sacks, and Amiri has 15 tackles (10 solo, five assists) with one sack as a defensive end in four games.
“It was just me and Kevin and Gabriel,” Kelechian said. “We would just work out and slowly people started joining through 2020 and 2021 because we progressively got better. I’m really thankful Coach Azad gave Hoover football another chance.”
Herabidian has been determined to raise money for Hoover’s football team since he took over the program. Part of that determination has led to fundraisers, which became more successful as more players joined the program.
“When I started, we had $150 in the football fund, and we didn’t have a single football on campus anywhere,” Herabidian said. “Now we have new practice jerseys, new practice pants, a bunch of new footballs, several helmets, and so we have all the equipment that we need to have a decent football practice.”
Herabidian began to construct the 2021 schedule in early April to get a head start on Freelance League opponents because he knew it would be difficult as the season approached.
“Things were changing constantly. We were originally going to play Bosco Tech, we were going to play Whittier Christian, we were going to play L.A. Jordan, we were going to play Rancho Dominguez,” Herabidian explained. “But it was like every week, another team was pulling out or having to rearrange. And I would have to find a different team,”
“I still tried to find teams that we were going to be competitive with, and the reason for that is very simple: A, we hadn’t had a varsity in three years; B, if you look at our roster, eight of our starters are sophomores, and most of those eight play both [offense and defense].”
Herabidian’s vision for a strong foundation comes with an outlook for the future, as the Tornados have just six seniors but boast a core of 15 juniors, 19 sophomores and 10 freshmen. With the Tornados’ roster consisting mostly of underclassmen and the team not playing a game since 2018, Hoover’s schedule reflected Herabidian’s goals.
“I’m not pretending like we are going out there and playing the toughest schedule,” Herabidian admitted. “We are just trying to play football with teams that are comparable to us in ability, depth and experience level. What we’re trying to do here at Hoover is build a sustainable football program with kids that are in [Glendale], from this community, so that people that want to play football here don’t feel like they need to go to other schools to play.”
Hoover beat its first five opponents — Mark Keppel, 64-24; Lynwood, 20-13; Beverly Hills, 33-0; Roybal, 30-6; and Dr. Maya Angelou, 14-0 — before losing the games against Castaic (48-6) and Maywood CES (50-21). Another encouraging sign is that the young team has outscored its seven opponents 188-141, highlighting its current strength and future abilities.
Part of that future may include sophomore quarterback Ethan Davis, who has risen to the occasion as a starter. In six games, he’s completed 34 of 77 passes for 617 yards and six touchdowns. He also has 42 carries for 384 yards, both team highs, and four rushing scores to boot.
Davis is sharing the field with senior wideout Marcus Bailey, building on a rapport that predates high school.
“It’s like a dream come true,” Davis said. “I have a really good connection with [Bailey], and he’s honestly my go-to receiver. I love the guy. He’s a great person and I like playing with him.”
Bailey, who has been sidelined due to a lower-body injury in recent games, had caught two tosses for 36 yards and a touchdown. As a free safety, he also had eight solo tackles, one sack and one interception.
Unfortunately, the Tornados’ offense suffered a big blow when it lost junior running back Andrew Torres for the season to concussions. He carried the ball 39 times for 225 yards in three games and a team-high eight rushing touchdowns.
One of Herabidian’s two-way sophomores, Isaac Perez, has eight carries for 30 yards and two catches for seven yards as a fullback. Defensively, Perez has a team-high five sacks and 18 solo tackles (23 total) at linebacker.
Perez credits the defensive line for much of the Tornados’ success this season.
“Our defensive line doesn’t get enough credit for blocking up the holes and making tackles easier for us,” Perez said. “They go out there and play their hearts out.”
The Tornados have recorded 21 sacks and 221 tackles (143 solo and 78 assists) as a unit. Junior outside linebacker Vaghinak Sakanyan has been the top defender with 29 solo tackles (34 total) and two sacks in five games.