SAMOHI ‚Äî Building on a succesful year can be daunting for any football team.
Santa Monica is coming off an 11-2 season and a berth in the semifinals of the CIF-Southern Section Western Division Playoffs, which isn‚Äôt intimidating to at least one Viking.
“We‚Äôre not looking to outdo last year‚Äôs team,” said Sebastian LaRue, a senior wide receiver who has committed to play for USC. “But, we enter the new year with higher goals and more expectations. I think the guys we have here are capable of that.”
LaRue‚Äôs confidence in his teammates is something shared with Head Coach Travis Clark, who is entering his fourth season in charge.
Gone are a stable of players that led Samohi to its most successful campaign in a decade, but word must be spreading that the Vikings are on the rise as a program.
Senior Ryan Barbarin transferred over from Serra and has won the starting quarterback job. He edged sophomore returner Nico Basile during camp, but that has Clark feeling good about the future of the team.
Even some of the guys lining up opposite LaRue are new to the program. Jason King, a transfer from Westchester, and Tremaine Taylor from Ocean League rival Morningside will give Barbarin other options when he drops back to pass only to find opposing defenses blanketing LaRue, who drew his fair share of double and even triple teams last season.
King stands out as the guy Clark expects to see big things from.
“The kid is special,” he said. “He has sensational hands and runs smooth routes.”
He added that King doesn‚Äôt possess LaRue‚Äôs speed, but is adept at tracking the ball and knowing where to be during plays.
If all goes according to plan, Samohi will open up on offense more than last season‚Äôs run-first posture. For that to happen, the offensive line will again be asked to manhandle opposing defensive fronts, something that was key to last year‚Äôs breakout season.
Senior left guard and first team All-Ocean league selection last season Andres Meza will anchor the line, but has plenty of help from second team pick Steve Becerra, Pete Breceda and Noah Anderson.
“We‚Äôll need these guys if we‚Äôre going to be more of a dual-threat offense,” Clark said. “We have guys on the outside who can make plays and a guy who can throw it to them. We just need our line to do what they‚Äôre expected to do and we‚Äôll be fine.”
The team‚Äôs confidence heading into Friday‚Äôs opener against Redondo Union will surely be tested this season. Aside from adding Redondo to the schedule, Southern California powerhouses Hart and Mater Dei will also be in the mix.
Clark has said all summer that he‚Äôs looking forward to the challenge knowing it can only make his team that much more experienced heading into the league portion of the schedule.
It‚Äôs a tactic other Samohi teams have been trying in recent years to harden their players for the league season and, if they‚Äôre fortunate, the playoffs.
But, before the Vikings can think about what‚Äôs down the road, they‚Äôll be focused on an unfamiliar Redondo team.
Clark attended Redondo‚Äôs first game of the season last week against North Torrance, a loss, and noticed a few hints about how they do things. What stood out to him was Redondo‚Äôs propensity to line up in a spread formation only to run the ball. It‚Äôs a trick a lot of teams use, but Clark said this week‚Äôs opponent is particularly effective.
To counter, Clark is instructing his defense to always look for the run even when the formation doesn‚Äôt elude to it. That puts added strain on the secondary, but Clark said he has the horses to run that kind of race.
LaRue is a two-way standout and will man one cornerback spot. The transfer Taylor will play on the other side. Mathew Rusk-Kosa returns as the group‚Äôs free safety.
“This is one of our best units on the team,” Clark said. “I believe they are one of the best on the Westside.”
Although Redondo is new this season, the two schools have ties in the past. When Clark suited up for Samohi during the 1980s, Redondo was a then-Bay League foe.
“It‚Äôs a traditional rivalry,” he said. “It‚Äôs going to be fun to rekindle it.”
Redondo coach Matt Ballard is new to the whole SoCal football scene having come from coaching in Northern California the past decade. Although he‚Äôs never seen the Vikings in person, he does know that Samohi is a serious adversary.
He watched film from last season and he couldn‚Äôt help but notice Samohi‚Äôs strengths. Many of the key players are gone, but he could tell by what he saw that Samohi is a well-coached outfit.
“I know they are coming off an 11-2 season, so they couldn‚Äôt have slipped that much,” Ballard said. “We‚Äôll see how it all works out on Friday night.”
Friday‚Äôs game begins at 7 p.m. at Santa Monica College‚Äôs Corsair Field.