The Covina Charter Oak High School football program built its reputation winning CIF-SS Southeast Division championships and Miramonte League titles.
Last season the Chargers found themselves in a different league, in more than one sense.
After 19 consecutive league victories and two straight CIF titles, Charter Oak needed overtime in its final regular-season game just to qualify for the postseason, where it made a swift 28-7 first-round exit. Again this season it’s the Chargers who are the recipient of all the buzz. The next five weeks will determine whether it’s warranted.
“It was obviously a step up for them last year,” Damien coach Greg Gano said. “The Sierra League is tougher than the league they came from, but they’ve got the best quarterback around. How he goes, they go.”
With three-time defending league champion Chino Hills having graduated the league’s most talented player and Claremont the league’s most prolific quarterback, there’s a perceived opening at the top of the Sierra League.
Damien, which would’ve made the playoffs had Charter Oak not prevailed in its league finale, is improved this season, as are both teams that finished below the Spartans last season, West Covina South Hills and Ayala.
Claremont, expected to drop off after graduating 18 starters including 3,500-yard passer Daniel Kessler, has compiled a 4-1 record. Senior quarterback Gabe Schaper, who first found out he was going to be the starter when junior Matt Simko transferred late in the summer, has completed 61 percent of his passes for 931 yards with seven touchdowns and three interceptions. The Wolfpack are something of a wild card but enter league play on a sour note after a 42-0 loss to Serrano.
Chino Hills (2-3) is entering league play on a downslope as well after a 34-0 loss to Redlands East Valley on Sept. 30 that came two weeks after it scored three points in a 24-point loss to Rancho Santa Margarita Tesoro. The Huskies, who are dealing with the loss of two-way player Ifo Ekpre- Olomu, currently a freshman at Oregon, are allowing 23.8 points per game despite the most difficult nonleague schedule in the league.
Damien’s Gano called his 2011 squad the best he’s had in three years at the school, and the Spartans have backed him up with four wins in five games, their best nonleague showing in three years under Gano. Damien capped a successful nonleague run with a 41-39 win over a San Juan Capistrano JSerra team it lost to 42-7 last year. If the three nonplayoff teams from last season, Damien, Ayala and South Hills, aren’t league title contenders, they’re certainly threats to make the playoffs.
“This is as balanced a league as I’ve been in for a long time,” Gano said. “If anybody lets one go, it could cost them a league championship.”
Ayala (2-3) went winless in league last season, but the Bulldogs are benefitting from the experience a bevy of young players received in 2010. Ayala’s three losses have been by a total of 12 points to teams with a combined 15-2 record.
Behind the play of quarterback Travis Santiago, who’s thrown for 1,231 yards and nine touchdowns with three interceptions, the only loss for Charter Oak (4-1) after a difficult nonleague slate came by eight points to an undefeated Rancho Cucamonga team that reached the CIF-SS Inland Division semifinals last season. The Chargers aspire for playoff success in the Inland Division, but first they must climb the ladder within the Sierra League.
Sierra League prediction:
Covina Charter Oak 4-1*
Chino Hills 3-2*
West Covina South Hills 1-4
* – playoff berth