A new coaching staff, veteran leaders combined with youthful talent could change the trajectory of the program.
The now thirteen-year interregnum in Loyola’s historically lofty place among the best prep football programs in California continued last fall with a dismal 1-9 campaign, the school’s worst record in 46 years.
Since the Cubs last captured a CIF Southern Section Division I title in 2005 (its tenth Large Schools crown), Loyola has won a grand total of one CIF playoff game and made it to the playoffs just three times over the course of thirteen seasons.
Juxtapose that disappointing skid with the preceding 13 years: the Cubs played in 34 playoff contests and were victorious in 27 of those games, which included two CIF Southern Section Division I championships (2003 and 2005); the Big Blue appeared in an additional three CIF Division I championship final tilts (1995, 1996 and 2000) and advanced to the playoff semifinals a total of seven times.
In that thirteen-year span, Loyola made it to at least the quarterfinal round of the playoffs every season. From 1974 through 2005, the Cubs participated in the highest division of the CIF Southern Section playoffs 31 out of 32 years.
The causes of Loyola’s downturn in football fortune have been the subject of much debate-sometimes spirited. Among the obvious problems have been the lack of sustained coaching continuity. Since STEVE GRADY ‘63 retired from the head coaching post in the spring of 2005 after compiling a brilliant 269-76-6 record over three decades, there have been a total of six head coaches at the program’s helm.
There are myriad other theories as to what caused the decline, and most have more than a semblance of validity. The only outlier in that time frame was the 2017 squad which finished 9-3 and notched the number 17 spot in the final CalHi Sports state rankings.
Will the longest prolonged drought in Cub Football annals end in 2019? Will this season mark the first step in a return to sustained prominence after a long slog of comparative mediocrity? The answer will begin to show in less than three weeks when Playa del Rey St. Bernard visits Smith Field for a 7:00 p.m. kickoff on August 30 in the season opener.
New head man DREW CASANI ‘91, a Loyola football icon, has put together the best coaching staff the program has seen in a long while. Casani has taken on his new tasks with a sense of urgency and keen focus. He has emphasized to his players they are not beholden to the days of yore, but they should revere the standards which made the program great: team first, sacrifice, commitment and physicality. Suffice to say, Casani has keen insight into what is needed to right the ship and has expeditiously dedicated himself to taking the steps required to make his program competitive.
The first-year head man is excited about the senior leadership demonstrated by a large number of stalwart players who are determined to change the trajectory of Cub Football.
Casani noted that there is talent in every position group, something that has not been the norm of late. While depth is an issue, the skill set of the starters should allow Loyola to compete effectively in every game on its schedule. As a veteran NFL scout, Casani knows talent when he sees it.
A player at the top of the list of senior team leaders and returning starters is bruising inside linebacker STEVEN ARELLANO. The 5-11, 213 lb. monster in the middle possesses many of the same traits as his head coach, who, as an inside linebacker, earned CIF Division I Player-of-the-Year honors after helping lead Loyola to the 1990 CIF Southern Section Division I championship. Arellano is a ferocious hitter who plays the game with uncommon ferocity.
Senior SAM DOMINGUEZ (6-2, 256) is another senior standout lauded by Casani. A talented mauler, Dominguez returns at left tackle on offense and could see part-time duty on the D-line.
DOMINICK BELISLE, a 6-1, 191 lb. outside linebacker, is another in the group of tough senior leaders, who is poised for a difference-making campaign.
There is no player on the squad who plays with more energy and passion than senior outside linebacker CARTER LINK( (6-1, 210).
Casani praised the improvement of senior safety EVAN THOMAS (6-0, 173), who has adapted well to his move from corner.
A key cog in the offensive attack is senior tight end BRENDAN PERNECKY (6-4, 231). He is expected to have a big year, as both a receiver and a blocker.
Another impressive senior leader is slot receiver/ backup quarterback TOMMY HATTON (6-0, 190). Hatton did a superior job behind center during the spring before the June arrival of junior quarterback BRAYDEN ZERMENO (6-4, 218). Zermeno is an impressive signal caller.
Casani is looking for big results from uber talented junior corners CEYAIR WRIGHT (6-0,170) and ZAKHARI SPEARS (6-3, 185). The duo has 24 major college scholarship offers between them with two more years of high school football still remaining. Wright’s most recent offer came from the University of Notre Dame.
Loyola’s freshman team last fall was among the school’s best of all time. Averaging 46 points per outing, the first string unit played very little in the third quarter of most contests. But for some of the most blatantly biased officiating ever witnessed at Vista Murrieta, the Cubs (9-1) would have finished unbeaten.
Several players from the Mission League champion freshman squad will play prominent roles on the varsity this fall. Co-MVPs JACOBY KELLY (6-1, 182) and PETER VANIS (5-10, 171) are two of the best sophomore wide receivers in the Southland. Running back HARRISON ALLEN (5-9, 171) is special, as is running back TAHJ OWENS (5-9, 172), who will also lend his skills to the secondary. Sophomore guard SAM YOON (6-4, 245) is vying for a starting job on the offensive line. His chief competition is from junior ANDRES PEREZ (6-3, 221). All five of the precocious sophomores have big careers ahead of them. Also, look out for tough sophomore inside linebacker PATRICK SODL (5-10, 182) and speedy, sure-handed sophomore tight end JOE TAYLOR (6-3, 182). Sophomore backup quarterback JOE TATUM (5-10, 165) was brilliant as the freshman field general last fall.
Among other seniors who will contribute to a potential turnaround season are behemoth offensive tackle SHAYNE STROYKE (6-5, 305), center NICK ANDERSON (6-5, 271) and guard HUNTER SAMUELSON (6-5, 267).
Senior brawlers up front on the defensive side include two very fast and strong players, BARRET KELLY (6-1, 221) and martial arts expert MARIANO UY (5-9, 222).
Senior inside linebacker NIKKO GONZALEZ (6-1, 210) and senior safety BLAKE NEITHART (5-9, 175) are being counted on to have banner campaigns.
The last time Loyola’s varsity lost nine games was in 1972. That year’s freshman team finished 8-1. Last season’s varsity went 1-9 and the Cub freshmen put together a dominant 9-1 campaign. Could there be parallels between squads that are separated by 47 years? The 1972 freshman class helped lead Loyola to an undefeated 13-0 season and the CIF AAAA title and National Championship as seniors three years later.
Cautious optimism might be in order as the 2019 Cub Football season is about to get underway.