CORSAIR FIELD — Despite sitting at 0-1 in the Santa Fe League, the once struggling St. Monica Mariners have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs for the first time since 2003.

In just his second season as head football coach, Larry Muno has led the Mariners to an overall record of 4-3 (one win more than last season) and a position to potentially return to the playoffs.

The next challenge for Muno will be keeping his team focused — and healthy — as St. Monica heads into the heart of the league schedule. The drive for the playoffs begins Saturday when the Mariners host Bellarmine-Jefferson at Santa Monica College’s Corsair Field. It will be St. Monica’s only “home game” in Santa Monica this season.

Fortunate for the Mariners, Bell-Jeff’s head coach is the first to admit that his team is having a down year, struggling to a 2-6 overall record and an 0-2 start in league.

“We’re just trying to hang in there,” Head Coach Rolando Aguirre said. “We don’t have the horses this year.”

Particularly difficult has been the quarterback situation. Bell-Jeff is down to its third-string quarterback who is playing his first year of varsity ball. Senior Chris Issakanian will be making his third start of the season.

Aguirre said that Issakanian has a tendency to scramble too often and has implored the signal caller to remain confident in the pocket. That will be difficult, Aguirre said, against a St. Monica defense led by sophomore sensation Mau Lauaki, who has 11 sacks this season.

Easing the load on Issakanian will be senior running back Micah Shirley. Muno sees him as potentially the greatest threat on offense and has devised a game plan with Shirley in mind. Shirley has run for nearly 1,000 yards this season.

“[Shirley’s] one of the best players in the league,” Muno said. “He pounded us last year.”

Bell-Jeff defeated St. Monica, 47-35, last season.

While Shirley is by all accounts healthy, there are some concerns that St. Monica’s play-making quarterback Matthew Partyka may not play. The speedy quarterback was knocked unconscious during last week’s 34-7 loss to league rival Salesian. Wide receiver Sam Holguin took over for Partyka and, during his time in the game, impressed Bell-Jeff’s coaching staff with his athletic ability and ease behind center.

Muno said that Partyka is doubtful this week. If he can’t play, Muno would again turn to the lanky Holguin at quarterback.

“He’s actually pretty good,” Muno said. “He does some things that Matt can’t do.”

Muno added that while Holguin isn’t as accurate as Partyka, he likes his arm strength and quick release.

Despite being favored, Muno said he doesn’t fear his team losing focus.

“We’re not good enough to be over confident,” Muno joked. “We lose a couple of guys [to injury] and we could easily lose the rest of our games.”

daniela@smdp.com

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