Shortly after time ran out in the recent football game between Canoga Park High and Roosevelt High of Los Angeles — a game that Canoga Park won handily, 41-0 — Hunters Coach Kevin Carlsen gathered his victorious team around him to drop some postgame knowledge.
He certainly could have pointed out how the Hunters had devastated the same team that knocked them out of the City Section Division II playoff semifinals last year. Or how sharp and crisp Canoga Park had played in its 2019 season opener.
But Carlsen had a more basic message to deliver.
“You’re not a good team,” Carlsen said.
Both coach and players expect the Hunters to be a good team this season. Maybe better than good. Maybe championship caliber. But there are no championships won in August. There is still plenty of football to play. Still plenty of work to be done.
In his first season as head coach last year, Carlsen — who moved up from offensive coordinator under Ivan Moreno after Moreno stepped down as head coach following the 2017 season — guided a team he described as “very young” to a 9-4 overall record.
The connections players can have with assistant coaches don’t always translate when the assistant becomes the head coach. But it is apparent that Carlsen and the team are in lockstep regarding their approach and commitment. It’s also obvious the players have collectively responded to the relentless, uptempo offensive style of football Carlsen likes to play. The Hunters scored 30 or more points in eight of their nine wins last season, and picked right up where they left off in the season opener against Roosevelt on Aug. 23.
“We teach them to play fast,” Carlsen said. “I have a quote I say all the time: ‘When you think, you’re wrong.’ I know in a big picture we want our kids to be able to think. But on the football field, when everything is very quick, there’s no time to think. You have to practice well and go by how you’ve been trained.
“If you think, you stop. The answer I always get when I ask them ‘why’d you do that’ is ‘I thought…’ You have to know and do it. That’s how football works.”
Three players emerged for Canoga Park last year: quarterback David Gomez, who threw for 2,032 yards and 15 touchdowns (against five interceptions) as a junior; Jorge Hernandez, who rushed for 942 yards and 23 touchdowns as a sophomore; and Dominic Arango-Serna, who caught 54 passes for 1,023 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman. All three are back, expecting more from themselves and the team in 2019.
“I’m much more comfortable,” said Gomez, 17 and a senior. “Last year was my first year on varsity and it was pretty scary as a quarterback. This year, with my offensive line and the great receivers we have, it’s gonna be fine.
“(Losing in the playoffs) last year was pretty devastating. But we came back in the offseason, and put everything — from Day One to last Friday’s game — on the line. And I knew I had my brothers’ backs and they had mine.”
Arango-Serna, 15, understands that as a sophomore he will be marked much tighter this season because opponents have film on him and will scheme for him, and that it’s up to him to keep improving his game.
“Every year everyone gets better and you’re competing with them to get to the top,” he said. “I’m ready for that. But I had expectations last season. I want to fulfill them.”
Hernandez, 16 a junior, doesn’t express much interest in personal stats. No matter what you ask him or how, he steers the conversation back to one singular point.
“We didn’t accomplish our goal, which was to win a championship. We have to keep working,” Hernandez said. “We’ve known each other for a while now. All we’ve been doing is working, building our chemistry. Now that we have it, I feel we can be unstoppable.”
The best thing in Carlsen’s eyes is that the Hunters don’t have to solely depend on those three players having big games for Canoga Park to win. Defensively, 10 of last year’s 11 starters are back, all bigger, stronger and with experience. The offensive line has grown and improved. And there is even more help for the offense.
“Josh Christopher played all the games last year, but offensively he didn’t help us much because he played eight games with a cast on his (right) arm at wideout,” Carlsen said. “He played great defensive back, but he couldn’t help us much offensively. We have him this year offensively and it helps tremendously that you can’t just focus on Jorge or Dominic. Rashad Cooks is another wide receiver who is also a junior.
“We have young kids who are talented football players. They’re still learning, but we have a lot of guys who can hurt you.”
Christopher, 17, a senior, is eager to develop into another scoring threat. But he said he is more intent on seeing the Hunters reach their full potential as a team.
“If we do our jobs, play well, and play fast, we feel no one can beat us,” Christopher said. “I’m comfortable in the offense and defense. I think if we continue to execute, come to practice and do what we do best, we’ll be fine.
“I think this year is our year. Last year we fell short. But we’re not thinking about the past, but the future. And we’re headed toward a better place.”
It’s still a journey, Carlsen notes, and there will be plenty of other tests to undertake, starting with Chavez tonight, Aug. 29, at Chavez High School.
“We’ve played just one game,” the coach said. “Some people are already talking that Canoga Park should be at the top of the division, and I told our kids we need to keep getting better, keep working hard. Don’t pay attention to what anybody’s telling you and keep playing one game at a time. Just try to go 1-0 every week.”