SAMOHI — What a way for a new coach to begin his first season.

Hoping to transition smoothly into his new job as head coach of the Santa Monica High School football team, Travis Clark never envisioned his first game to be threatened by a fierce illness that has infected up to 20 players on his team.

Senior quarterback Garrett Safron is under the weather. Fellow senior Luke Zelon, one of the team’s most heavily recruited players, is out, too.

On the eve of the team’s season opener against Leuzinger, which is scheduled to kick off at 7 p.m. at Santa Monica College’s Corsair Field, Clark isn’t overly concerned with the game plan or strategy. His mind is elsewhere.

“I’m not sure what the call is going to be,” Clark said of the status of the game. “I’m just really concerned about the health of my kids.

“Football is secondary.”

The trouble began on Wednesday, the first day of school at Samohi. Clark said that up to 10 players called in sick complaining of flu-like symptoms. As the day progressed that number swelled to nearly 20 with additional players being sent home by the school’s nurse. By the time Clark arrived on campus for practice, his team had been decimated by illness and he essentially canceled practice with some kids sticking around to work in the weight room.

By Thursday it had become apparent that the problem had spread prompting school and district officials to step up awareness efforts to potentially stem the spread of the illness.

Mike Matthews, assistant superintendent of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, said that the district is aware of the situation and has advised ill students to refrain from returning to campus until their fevers have subsided for at least 24 hours. A high fever has been noted in nearly all of the players affected.

Matthews said that it appears that the problem is Isolated to the football team, but said that precautions have been made to ensure other students do not become ill.

While this may help slow the spread of this illness, it does little to help the team as it prepares to open its season.

“(The sick players) want to play, but if they have a 100 degree temperature I’m not going to let them,” Clark said.

He spent the better part of Thursday monitoring the situation and discussing it with school administrators.

Norm Lacy, Samohi’s athletic director, said that the game will take place as of Thursday. He realizes that it may hurt the team’s performance, but knows that the show must go on.

“We’re on alert, people are aware of it,” Lacy said. “We have to let the illness run its course.

“This is just a hitch in the giddy up.”

For at least one player, no degree of illness will stop him from taking the field with the Vikings. After coming down with the illness on Wednesday, starting quarterback Safron said that he’s just been laying low and getting lots of rest.

Safron was held out of classes on Thursday as a precaution.

“I don’t know what happened,” Safron said. “It came out of nowhere.”

Aside from dealing with what has been described as a flu-like bug, the team will have to contend with the likes of Leuzinger come game time.

Clark, who has reviewed tape of Leuzinger’s 20-21 loss to Hamilton High School to start the season, is impressed with the Olympians’ physical play and considers them improved from last season. The Vikings under then coach Zach Cuda defeated the Olympians 31-6 on the road last season. Samohi went on to finish the season 8-3 and lost in the first round of the California Interscholastic Federation playoffs.

“I expect a lot of great athletes,” Clark said of the matchup. “They have a great passing attack.”

Clark said that he felt his team was up for the challenge before illness took its toll. Now he’s just curious to see how it shapes out.

Still smarting from last season’s rout, Leuzinger Head Coach Deon Toliver said he expects his team to correct last year’s mental mistakes and is particularly pleased to have his starting kicker make his season debut. Last week’s loss to Hamilton ended with Leuzinger attempting a pass to end the game instead of going for a game-winning field goal.

As this year’s matchup looms, Toliver said his game plan includes more passing than last year’s team thanks to the return of senior quarterback Te Shon Burton, who has verbally committed to Portland State University.

“We were better running the ball last year,” Toliver said. “All of our receivers are returners so we’re trying to put the ball up more than we usually do.”

In his third season at the helm, Toliver said that the Olympians will abandon their power running attack in favor of a high-octane aerial assault.

An injury to senior running back Junior Nash in the opener further forces Leuzinger to take to the air if it hopes to topple the Vikings, ruining their debut.

While Leuzinger features an improved offense, it’s the Olympian’s defense that has Samohi players taking notice.

“They bring a lot of pressure,” Safron said. “They are physical and they like to hit.”

One of those physical players is Taumoelau Kaveinga, a safety/running back who is the younger brother of USC’s Uona Kaveinga. When he’s not patrolling the secondary he will be called on to shoulder some of the load running the ball. With Nash out, Toliver will go to him early and often to put Samohi on its heels.

With Taumoelau Kaveinga and a talented bunch of defensive backs awaiting Samohi’s improved passing game, the Vikings’ star wide receiver said he welcomes the challenge.

Senior Chris Featherstone said that he likes that Leuzinger plays man-to-man defense in the secondary, which he looks forward to.

“In comparing zone and man defense,” Featherstone said, “I prefer man.”

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