The one constant in the La Cañada High School football program is no longer, as the school announced this week that Jason Sarceda will not return as head coach of the varsity football team.
Sarceda has long been involved in the local football scene, coaching Gladiators youth football and serving as an LCHS assistant coach before being hired as head coach in June 2017.
“During his tenure in the position, he led the Spartan football program to an improving win/loss record, most notably keeping players engaged and ready for resumption of the COVID-delayed 2021 season,” the school said in a statement. “LCUSD is grateful to coach Sarceda for his dedicated service which spanned nearly a decade.”
The longtime coach, who compiled a 9-25 record the past four seasons, issued his own statement on Tuesday thanking players, families and the LCHS administration.
“I leave our program with such pride, that I have had the incredible opportunity to coach La Cañada’s finest group of student-athletes for more than 10 years,” he said. “As I move on, I want you all to know I do it with the highest regard for our program, our LCHS administration and our district leadership. These professionals helped our school and our team when football almost didn’t exist at LCHS by trusting me to guide us through extremely difficult times.”
Sarceda, whose son played for LCHS and graduated in 2016, took the reins of a program that ached for stability and consistency after having three coaches — James Sims, Ramsey Lambert and Ryan Zerbel — over the course of five years.
“I stepped into it knowing where the building blocks were,” Sarceda told the Outlook Valley Sun on Tuesday. “It definitely was a long road. I knew that going into it. We all knew that we were going to be rebuilding. I did it more for our school and our community. I really wanted to genuinely build something that people could be proud of in our community and be a part of that.”
Sarceda made it a goal to change the football culture at LCHS but it wasn’t an easy start as the team finished winless with an 0-10 for the first time in school history. He earned his first victory as head coach in September 2018 when he guided the Spartans to a 37-6 win over New Designs Watts of Los Angeles, but there was still much work to be done as La Cañada finished that season with a 1-9 record.
It wasn’t until 2019 when La Cañada players and coaches began to see their hard work pay off. The Spartans won three straight games, a feat that had not been done in five years, but struggled in Rio Hondo League play and ended the season 5-5.
Most would be disappointed with a .500 record, but it actually excited Sarceda, whose team was comprised mostly of underclassmen, and he looked forward to the 2020 season.
“We kept building and we were going into what I thought was going to be an amazing year for us,” Sarceda said. “It was supposed to be the show-and-tell of my career [as a coach], a turning point where all the freshmen that started with me were now seniors and they’d see the bigger picture of what we were building.”
Unfortunately, the community only saw a glimpse of Sarceda’s vision. The COVID-19 pandemic nearly derailed the program with seven starters transferring, including starting quarterback Brandon Reese, who joined Pasadena Muir’s program.
“I just had to keep our heads high and keep our boys confident. I just felt it was all building up to this year and COVID just whacked us a little bit,” said Sarceda, whose never-lose-hope attitude and positivity during difficult times paid off with the arrival of Ivan Ostry, a Rosemead transfer who was one of the top runners in the area and an All-CIF standout.
“We never stopped training and continued to work as a unit when other coaches in other programs weren’t doing anything,” said Sarceda, who hosted Zoom workouts with the LCHS players. “It kind of made me feel good about all the actions and every day of telling these boys to never give up. I told them to never think the season isn’t going to happen. Have faith.”
The CIF Southern Section delayed the football season, but the starting date was pushed back further due to surges in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Los Angeles County. In January, CIF-SS canceled playoffs for Season 1 sports, which included football, raising doubts of any action on the gridiron this year.
But that all changed when the state revamped its guidelines permitting high school athletics, a move that the county would then also adopt to allow high school football to return to Los Angeles.
The Spartans opened the season falling to Rio Hondo League rival South Pasadena on March 19 but bounced back with victories over Santa Paula, Glendale and San Marino. The Spartans were supposed to close out the season against Monrovia but the game was canceled due to coronavirus concerns.
“This season was fulfilling for me,” Sarceda said. “If you don’t quit, you never know what’s going to happen, and good things can happen to you. These are life lessons in football.”
Sarceda said he is “OK” with the school’s decision and felt it was a good time to part ways with LCHS and football. The extra time will allow him to focus on his businesses in La Cañada Flintridge, which are La Cañada Printsmith and Strut Fitness Studio.
“I think we leave the program in a great place,” said Sarceda, who added that multiple coaches in the area have asked him to join their staff. “I really feel confident we were headed in the right direction. I’ve made some amazing friendships and I love the fact that players come back [to greet me.]”
According to the school, the district “has cast a wide net in posting the position to secure a strong talent pool.” Interviews will be held this month and administrators said they hope to hire a new coach by the end of the May.