Climbing mountains — whether in actual time or metaphorically — usually requires deft planning and assured steps. And even then you might need a dollop of luck and have to take a leap of faith.
Sierra Canyon High has been climbing its football mountain for the past 10 years, wanting someday to be able to line up against the very best in the Southern Section — Mater Dei High of Santa Ana, St. John Bosco High of Bellflower, or Centennial High of Corona — and eventually the state.
Now this small, private school in Chatsworth, the 2018 Southern Section Division I-A champion and state CIF Division I-A championship bowl game runner-up, is primed and poised to do something historic in 2019 — be a true Division I team.
Keep in mind the Trailblazers didn’t start playing 11-man football until 2009, a year after Jon Ellinghouse became the head coach. Both he and Sierra Canyon have enjoyed and sustained a meteoric rise these past 10 years, going from being a Division XII team to being one of 23 section teams listed as a Division I/II. After the regular season, the top eight ranked teams will play in an Open Division format, while the remaining teams would play for the Division I championship.
The Trailblazers don’t expect to be overwhelmed. Their 2019 team is young yet experienced —seven sophomores and a freshman were starters last season — loaded at the skill positions, and carrying a shared belief that they are ready to reach their gridiron summit.
“We’ve got a great group of kids who are hungry and motivated,” Ellinghouse said. “I don’t like to motivate teenagers with the ‘negative.’ I don’t harp on the fact we lost the state championship game or anything like that. I feel we’ve got a program that we’ve built that we’re very proud of. We did some great things last year — won a CIF championship after moving up divisions. We’ve got another challenge, moving up divisions again this year.
“We’ve never been in a better position, with the amount of kids we have and the talent of the kids we have. This place is a great place to thrive. It’s my job not to screw it up.”
For seniors like linebacker J.D. Hernandez — a varsity player since he was a freshman for Sierra Canyon — the program knocking on the door of Division I feels alternately surreal and a natural progression.
“When I first got here no, I didn’t think it could be ‘this,’” said Hernandez, 17. “But we all bought in, and understood what we could be. That’s the biggest thing: we all see our potential, we chase after it, and we’ve done everything to get to where we are now.
“I’m excited. As far as skill guys go, we’re a lot deeper than we’ve ever been. And our experience has definitely grown. We’ve had guys who’ve been playing varsity ball since they were freshmen and sophomores now becoming juniors and seniors. That’s big.”
A couple of those juniors — D.J. Harvey and J.D. Sumlin, both 16 and dual threats at wide receiver and defensive backs — also sense what a perception-altering season 2019 could be for the Trailblazers, and have tried to prepare themselves accordingly.
“I wanted to be faster, stronger, just all-around better to help the team and stuff like that,” Sumlin said. “This year….We’ve just got to push a little harder. Last year was a good season. This year’s gonna be a good one, too.”
Likewise, Harvey dedicated himself to the weight room and conditioning. “I’m expecting to put up big numbers and help the team win a state championship,” he said. “Man, it’s gonna be hard. But we’re prepared.”
It would not be easy for many schools to duplicate the level of success the Trailblazers enjoyed in 2018. After losing their first two games, Sierra Canyon won 12 of the next 13. That included road victories in the Southern Section Division III championship game against Cajon High School in San Bernardino, and the state CIF Division I-A SoCal Regional playoff game against Upland High in Upland.
A dream conclusion to the 12-4 season was denied by Northern California opponent Liberty High School of Brentwood, which held off Sierra Canyon, 19-17, in the CIF Division I-A State Championship Bowl Game played last December at Cerritos College.
Yet, it would not be outlandish to believe the Trailblazers can make a similar run to a state title game in 2019, even if they would have to go through the toughest division — Open — to get there.
Nothing will be handed to them. Sierra Canyon has only one league game (against Paraclete High of Lancaster to determine the Gold Coast “champion”), and must maneuver through a nine-game nonleague slate that features entrenched powers like Westlake, Oaks Christian, St. Paul of Santa Fe Springs, Bakersfield and Crespi.
Ellinghouse also sees that as a positive.
“For our program [that kind of scheduling has been] a really good thing,” he said. “We’ve been able to compete against the best of the best, and we’re definitely doing that this year.”
But, he added, there is more to do to accomplish those goals.
“I really want to see us develop a mindset that leads to a championship level,” Ellinghouse said. “Obviously, some of us have done it before and know what it looks like. In our summer [practices] so far, we still have some ways to go with just being a mentally tough football team; a team where, when somebody is pushing back on us, we have the fortitude and mental toughness to not let a team come back or beat us.
“We’re a talented team right now. I want to see us get that championship mentality.
Back in March, the Sierra Canyon boys’ and girls’ basketball teams both won the state Open Division championships and are recognized throughout the prep world as full-fledged power players in their sport.
The football team would like to make the same statement in its sport.
The rest of Southern California — and the state — should pay attention.