CORSAIR FIELD — Now the real challenge begins.

After finishing its preseason schedule a promising 4-1, the Santa Monica High School football team now enters Ocean League play against rival Inglewood on Friday at Corsair Field.

The season’s fast start for the Vikings would have most coaches hopeful of what’s to come, but for Head Coach Travis Clark this week’s game is the start of a new season, one that he hopes ends with a league title and a playoff appearance. And he’s not resting on his laurels.

“Every game is the biggest game of the season,” Clark said of the ramped-up intensity of the regular season. “The boys are feeling good, their not intimidated. [Inglewood] is the defending champions. What better way to start the league?”

Inglewood may be the reigning champs, but this season hasn’t treated them quite as well. The Sentinels have opened the year a surprising 1-4, but Clark said those numbers lie.

Last week’s loss to Palos Verdes is a perfect example. The final score was 42-14, but a pair of blocked punts that were converted into touchdowns seemed to wilt the Sentinel’s will to win, Clark said after watching tape of the game.

“Just a couple mistakes are all it takes,” Clark said. “If those blocks didn’t happen, it could have been a different ball game.”

It’s those mistakes that Clark said could result in an equal fate for the Vikings this week. He’s worked with his team all week preaching ball control and discipline. His players are responding to the added stress on fundamentals, something he hopes pays off on Friday.

Chief among Clark’s concerns is Inglewood’s Derrick Woods, a player considered one of the best wide receivers in the nation. Problem for Clark is that Woods won’t be lining up at receiver. Instead, Woods has been seeing more time at quarterback.

“I think they want [Woods] to have the ball in his hands on almost every play,” Clark said. “It didn’t start that way, but that’s what I’m planning for.”

Countering Woods and company will be a stingy Samohi defense that hasn’t allowed more than 17 points all season. At the core of the Vikings’ defense is linebacker Chris Collins, who’s being recruited by Washington State among others. Collins’ presence is all the more crucial as defensive lineman Chad Wheeler will again be sidelined with a shoulder injury. Wheeler, who has committed to USC, was to have surgery, but has opted to rehab the shoulder instead.

Clark didn’t put a timeline on his return, but labeled the injury more of an aggravation than a severe injury. For Clark, any return this season by the towering lineman would be a bonus.

In Wheeler’s absence, Clark has noted that the injury has been a rallying point for his Vikings. On the offensive line, where Wheeler has been recruited to play at USC, players like Matt Schultz and Steve Becerra have stepped up to fill the void.

On defense, defensive backs Kori Garcia and London Lewis have improved their play, which is a testament to both players’ endurance. Garcia and Lewis are also the team’s top tandem at running back, putting them on the field nearly every play.

Clark said the platoon at running back has kept both players fresh on defense, something that the coach sees as a major benefit of sharing the load running the ball.

“Those guys have been huge for us,” Clark said. “I don’t know where we’d be without them.”

daniela@www.smdp.com

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