A new era of San Marino High School football is officially set to begin this Friday, Aug. 23, at Covina Charter Oak, with a hard emphasis on new.
Justin Mesa was hired to take over the program four months ago following the retirement of legendary head coach Mike Hobbie and only two of 15 2018 All-Rio Hondo League players returned this season.
“It was quite a transition for the kids and me, especially the seniors,” Mesa said. “They had grown up with certain coaches, and then came a big change for them.”
Working with a team only three months before the season is a difficult task for any coaching staff. However, Mesa’s confidence in his squad grew the past two weeks following the blue and white scrimmage and three-way contest against San Gabriel and Pasadena Poly.
“We’ve been coming together as a team the last couple of weeks,” Mesa said. “We had a limited amount of snaps last week against San Gabriel and Poly, and our kids wanted to keep playing. We couldn’t hog the field because there were other teams playing. They’re just anxious and ready to go. We will be ready by the end of the week. Don’t get me wrong. We are still a work in progress, but we are getting better on a daily basis. We’ve come a long way since day one.”
Mesa credits the athletes who saw time on the field last season for the making the transition period an easier one.
The Titans will rely on Connor Short behind center after having appeared in 11 games last season. He threw for 601 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions. He was also third in rushing with 422 yards and five scores.
“It’s better to be on the field than not, so there’s no doubt he benefited from that experience,” Mesa said of Short. “It’s good to get Connor on the field throwing. He did a great job against San Gabriel and it was good to see him get going against a fast team.”
The coaching staff isn’t afraid to let Short air it out or tuck the football and run. Mesa said his abilities allowed him to get creative with the playbook.
“I feel comfortable doing both things with him,” Mesa said. “To use his arm and utilize the halfback option, we will be running it all in the game to exploit defenses.”
Matthew Karapetyan and Michael Prappas are early favorites to carry the load from the backfield, but Mesa expects to use a committee at running back early on and his receiving corps to improve week by week.
“Hopefully, Trond Grizzell and Neven Yarahmadi step up because they are two savvy players who picked up the system easily,” Mesa said. “Jeffrey Conzonire will have a good opportunity at tight end. It really is going to be a group effort on offense.”
Defense in a Good Place
As Rio Hondo League champions in 2018, San Marino had 15 players recognized in the All-League list and 13 of those athletes graduated last spring, leaving a roster mostly full of inexperienced Titans for Mesa and his staff.
Despite the losses, San Marino has athletes returning in key positions, including All-Rio Hondo League second-team linebackers Seth Matzumoto and Yarahmadi. The Titans also have seniors Chris Leung, Christian Pham and Yohannes Zerihun at defensive back and Kouroush Hassibi, Seth Canul, Kyle Chen, Alex Uriarte and Leo Li in the trenches.
“As a team, I think we might be further ahead on defense,” Mesa admitted. “We have a good defensive line and our linebackers understand the system. They have played hard so far and will need to tackle better. That is an area for improvement as we move forward.”
San Marino enters the regular season as the reigning league champion, and its goal is to repeat. The CIF Southern Section ranked Mesa’s squad No. 8 in the Division 10 preseason poll.
“That’s something we take great pride in,” Mesa said. “We have a big target on us and will treat every opponent with respect.”
Though Mesa wants to win a league crown, he hasn’t put much thought in Monrovia, South Pasadena, La Cañada and Temple City. He and his players are solely focused on this Friday’s contest.
“I honestly haven’t had a good look ahead because our primary focus is on ourselves and building a relationship,” Mesa said. “We’re establishing a culture and getting prepared for the Chargers. We don’t want to look past any opponent. We’re respecting the one we have showing up. Not to say we don’t respect the teams in our league because the one goal we have is to be Rio Hondo League champions. We’re just taking it one game at a time.”