The “neighborhood stories” are getting fewer and fewer in high school sports. By that I mean teams primarily comprised of players who primarily grew up in the same neighborhood and have typically played on the same teams, from Little League and Pop Warner to high school.
With premium talent these days able to move from school to school as if they had hall passes, it becomes more incumbent to celebrate those stories of teams making do with what they have — and doing it well.
Monroe High football is shaping into one of those stories in 2018.
After losing its season opener to Reseda, the Vikings (4-1,1-0) have won their last four games, including a 20-13 nail-biter against North Hollywood on Sept. 14, the first league game for both teams.
And Monroe is doing it with players who are Monroe guys instead of chasing after — perhaps futilely — any and every one with the strongest arm or fastest legs to play for the program.
Maybe it’s the “old-school” in Don Senegal, who’s been coaching football for 31 years. Maybe it’s more exciting and more rewarding to build something over time instead of just trying to re-stock year after year, and endure the added pressure and stress coming from agitated outsiders who immediately want to blow things up if the results don’t turn out well.
Because if this does turn out to be one of those “special years” for Monroe football — which last won a league title in 1994 (Pac 8) and last played for a City championship in 2014 when it reached the section’s Division III title game against Los Angeles High — it will happen with a group of Monroe guys who have grown up together and learned to trust each other.
“‘Resiliency.' That’s the best word to describe these kids. They are just resilient,” Senegal said. “I think it’s the culture of the program. The kids we get are like that. They know they’ve got to earn everything they get.
“We’re doing this with all neighborhood kids. That is the best part of the success we’re having. My coaches are great at developing these kids. This can happen with kids who are in the program for four years.”
Monroe is in the midst of its bye week, normally a time when teams spend the extra days working on some exotic plays or specific fundamentals to shore up weaknesses. But not the Vikings. They will spend the added time focused on the upcoming game against Verdugo Hills on Sept. 28. Last year the Dons pounded Monroe, 40-15, and eventually went on to the Division III title game against Marshall High of Los Angeles
“I like to keep the same routine,” Senegal said. “The kids are used to having a routine, doing the same thing. If they get out of that routine, it is not good for them.”
The players say they are fine with it. Why change what’s working?
“We really have to prepare a lot,” said linebacker Matthew Morales, a junior. “And there’s always improvements to make. We really want to beat Verdugo. So we have to be ready to fight. There are no days off.”
Quarterback Kam Lord, a senior who has played on varsity for three years, suspected that 2018 could be a good year for Monroe football. And he doesn’t want bad habits or lost concentration being reasons to halt the budding momentum.
“I always felt this team could do a lot of good things, and a lot of big things. What we’re experiencing right now is not really surprising me,” Lord said.
“I’ve got teammates I’ve been playing with for two or three years. Everybody has gelled, and we have the ‘brotherhood of everything’ down. But we need to keep riding this wave, keep improving as we go through the season.”
Currently joining the Vikings atop the East Valley League at 1-0 are Grant, which blasted Arleta, and Verdugo Hills, which surprised Chavez. Neither Arleta, Grant nor Verdugo Hills have overall winning records yet. Still, those teams, as well as Chavez, will have a say in who eventually is league champion.
Even so, this projects to be the most wide open East Valley race since 2013, when there was a three-way tie for second place behind Arleta. And right now the Vikings are a most interesting entry. None of Monroe’s four wins were dominant, at least on the scoreboard; the final seven-point spread against North Hollywood was the largest margin of victory.
“We have to stay disciplined, play it one game at a time, and not overlook anybody. That’s important,” Lord said.
Morales agrees. “I personally don’t take any team lightly. I always try to do my best and tell my teammates not to get caught up in any ‘cockiness.’”
The Vikings must still face Arleta and Grant after the Verdugo contest, and (after playing Poly) will finish league play against Chavez on Oct. 26.
Only Monroe fans can look ahead to what might be. The Monroe team doesn’t want to wind up contemplating what might have been.
Just play the team in front of them that week. Stay in the routine.
Senegal will let the season unfold. But he understands that he and the team should feel optimistic about the future of 2018.
“They don’t quit or panic. They don’t worry if they’re behind,” the coach said of the Vikings.
Lord is the epitome of that kind of calmness.
“One of the positives is we are getting through close games, and we keep fighting,” he said. “The important thing is we are winning, and doing well this year.”