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Center Sebastian Larue from the Santa Monica High School Varsity football team leaps into the air and catches the football as it was thrown to him in between Taylor Thomas on the left and Taylor Wilson on the right both from the Canyon Varsity football team at Santa Monica College as SAMO hosted Canyon in a non-league football game and won by a score of 42-0 to improve their record to 3-0 (photo by Morgan Genser)

VALENCIA, Calif. — Samohi’s Travis Clark hopes the third time is the charm against Valencia.

After falling to the vaunted Valencia program two years in a row, Santa Monica High School’s third-year head coach is thinking this could be Samohi’s time to exorcise those demons and put his team on the map.

“I’m a lot more comfortable than before,” Clark said. “Just getting ready for the big game this week.”

He has reason to be comfortable this time around as Samohi prepares to travel to Valencia on Friday.

Even Valencia Head Coach Larry Muir likes what he sees in Samohi. The longtime coach, who has built Valencia into a powerhouse during his 17 years on the sideline, said that this is the most athletic Samohi team he’s faced and is impressed by the job Clark has done coaching his team to a 3-0 record for the first time since coming to campus.

“We’ll have our hands full,” Muir said. “They have a lot of speed at the skill positions.”

Muir and his uncharacteristically 1-2 Valencia Vikings will counter Samohi’s dynamic offense with a defense that Clark considers the best he’ll face this year.

“They have such a disciplined program,” Clark said. “People have bought into [Muir’s] philosophy.

“The kids have been trained in his system.”

Leading the charge for Samohi will be an emergent Christian Salem, who in his first year as the starting quarterback has steadily earned the trust of Clark as he rounds into a legitimate threat.

Last week during a win over Anaheim Canyon, Salem was 6 for 8 for 127 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also scrambled for 41 yards. It was his running that gave Clark fits. It wasn’t the fact that he tucked the ball and ran for it that had Clark nervous. It was his willingness to take on tacklers once he was down field that put Clark on edge.

“We worked on that all week,” Clark said. “I told him, ‘don’t be afraid to lay down at the end of those runs.’”

Aside from the development of Salem has been the steady play of Samohi’s running backs. Led by Kori Garcia, the group ran for 285 yards with senior transfer London Lewis gaining 101 yards against Canyon. Clark used Garcia somewhat as a decoy last week, giving Canyon the impression he would touch the ball early and often but instead let Salem air it out a bit as the Comanches stacked the box with defenders.

“We noticed that they were crowding the line,” Clark said. “We used that to our advantage.”

That same strategy may pan out this week against Valencia. Muir has taken notice of Garcia’s running prowess, vowing to make it hard for the speedster to rack up yardage.

“That kid can play,” Muir said. “He’s somebody to watch out for.”

Samohi’s offense has been a major factor in the teams’ early-season success, but it may have to play without its most imposing offensive lineman — USC-commit Chad Wheeler.

Wheeler was forced to rest against Canyon with a slightly separated shoulder suffered during practice and again may sit on Friday. Clark said that Wheeler is chomping at the bit to play, but the coach may err on the side of safety and give the towering lineman another week off.

“We want him to be healthy in the future,” Clark said. “I just want him to take precautions.”

Wheeler has been working with a shoulder harness this week, but Clark said it’s best to consider him a game-time decision.

If Wheeler can’t play, senior Matt Schultz will again get the start. Clark praised Schultz’ willingness to switch over from his regular tight end spot to pick up the slack.

“He’s a tremendous blocker,” Clark said. “The team needs him in that capacity.”

Wheeler’s absence won’t be felt as directly by the defense, where he lines up at defensive end. He plays a crucial role on that side of the ball, but Clark doesn’t consider him a starter at that position. Clark will rely on a platoon of guys to hold down the D-line without Wheeler.

Despite Valencia’s 1-2 record, a win over such an established program would do wonders for Samohi’s drive to make the playoffs and earn a favorable seeding. Clark isn’t letting that slow start fool him, noting that Valencia’s two losses came against the likes of Sherman Oaks Notre Dame and West Hills Chaminade, both Southern California powers.

“We’re not trying to get ahead of ourselves,” Clark said. “We just want to see the kids come out and put in an honest effort.

“We’ll be proud of that.”

daniela@smdp.com

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