Ontario Christian’s Ambassador League championship last season created a nice round number. It has officially been a decade since any team but Aquinas or Ontario Christian has won the league championship.
The Knights’ undefeated run through league in 2011 gave each team a tidy five titles since 2002 but despite the balance, the rivalry was threatening to become one-sided. Aquinas had won the last four league championships, even relegating Ontario Christian to third in 2010 before a bounce back year by the Knights in 2011 they hope will propel them into this season as the favorites.
Just like seven of the last eight seasons, this one could very well end with the matchup between the longtime rivals deciding the league championship.
“There’s a mutual respect there,” Aquinas coach Chris Ybarra said. “They respect what we do and how hard our kids play and we respect the things they do. It could come down to that again where we’re playing each other for a league title. That would be nice.”
Both teams are under new leadership this season, but the head coaches are familiar faces. Chris Stevens, Ontario Christian’s head coach for five seasons before stepping down in 2008 after the birth of his triplets, spent the last two years as the offensive coordinator. He was promoted to head coach again when Scott Hurst departed after making his lone season in 2011 a good one.
Chris Ybarra, who took over the Aquinas program when third-year head coach Nick Matheny departed for Fontana in the offseason, hasn’t technically been on the football coaching staff before but the school’s longtime softball coach and athletic director has spent ample time around the program.
Stevens’ won’t be the only familiar face at Ontario Christian, which returns six offensive starters among 16 seniors, including quarterback Craig Bruinsma, running back T.J. Spykstra and 6-foot-5, 200-pound receiver Christian Dirksen, who is receiving interest from colleges as a kicker.
“Defenses are going to have fits deciding which one to stop,” Stevens said. “If they stack the box, we’ll throw it over the top to Christian.”
Aquinas, conversely, has a new face in its backfield, Damien transfer quarterback Eric Munoz, a 6-3, 195-pound junior. Given the versatility of his new signal caller, Ybarra plans to run a multitude of plays out of various offensive sets.
“I’m conflicted cause I want to talk about (Munoz), but I don’t want everybody to know about him,” Ybarra said. “We can do a lot of different things with him. But about 85, 90 percent of what we did last year will still be a part of the program.”
Of course, perhaps the main reason Aquinas and Ontario Christian have reigned over the Ambassador League is defense. Last year was no different as Aquinas allowed a league-best eight points per game and Ontario Christian less than 10 points per game in league play.
The next best was third-place Linfield Christian’s allowance of 19.2 points per game. Linfield Christian, a 2009 CIF champion prior to joining the Ambassador League, is expected to be more of a factor in the league title race with more players out for football this season, but there was a significant gap last year as Ontario Christian defeated Linfield by 25 and Aquinas by 30.
Western Christian was extremely young during last year’s 3-7 campaign and is hoping to reap the benefits of starting a large group of freshman and sophomores in Kevin Oberlander’s first year at the helm. The Lancers graduated several mainstays in the starting lineup, including three-year starting quarterback Mike Mendoza, but Oberlander is hoping his youthful group will mature into a playoff contender this season.
Arrowhead Christian is hoping to recover from an 0-10 season in 2011 by shoring up a defense that allowed more than 41 points per game in league play. The Eagles return four starters on each side of the ball, including a secondary that will be the strength of the team and a trio of juniors at quarterback, running back and receiver.
“Our main goal is to make the playoffs,” Arrowhead Christian coach John Beck said. “I think we’ve made big enough strides and done the right things over the summer to where that’s not impossible.”
Coach: John Beck
Year, record at school: Third year, 3-17
2011 record: 0-10 (0-5)
Last playoff berth: 2008, lost 42-19 to Los Angeles Brentwood in CIF-SS East Valley Division first round.
Key returnees: Troy King, TE, 6-3, 188, Sr.; Joe Ferronato, OL, 6-4, 245, Sr.; Hunter Jackson, OL/DL, 6-2, 210, Sr.; Josh Richardson, RB/LB, 5-9, 155, Jr.; Kyle Gober QB/DB, 6-1, 170, Jr.; James Chang, WR/DB, 5-10, 160, Sr.
Keys to success: During the offseason Arrowhead Christian placed an overwhelming emphasis on shoring up a defense that allowed 40 points per game last season. Beck feels confident the team will be much more sound defensively this year, taking pressure off the offense.
Coach: Chris Ybarra
Year, record at school: First year
2011 record: 9-3 (4-1)
Last playoff berth: 2011, def. Citrus Valley 19-9; lost 42-7 to Lancaster Paraclete in CIF-SS East Valley quarterfinals.
Key returnees: Romero Flores RB/DB, 5-11, 175, Sr.; Eric Munoz, QB, 6-3, 195, Jr.; Josh Lopez, TE/LB, 6-1, 197, Sr.; Blayne Rojas WR/LB, 6-4, 201, Sr.; Manny Perez, OL/DL, 6-1, 200, Sr.; Matt Hernandez, WR/DB, 5-9, 171, Sr.; Daniel Schodlbauer WR/DB, 6-1, 165, Sr.
Keys to success: Aquinas received a promising transfer quarterback from Damien in junior Eric Munoz, but providing him protection may be the Falcons’ most pressing issue. Aquinas is replacing three offensive linemen, not to mention three defensive linemen, in an effort to remain strong in the trenches.
Coach: Chris Stevens
Year, record at school: First year
2011 record: 8-3-1 (5-0)
Last playoff berth: 2011, def. Huntington Beach Brethren Christian 35-7; lost 38-0 to Chatsworth Sierra Canyon in CIF-SS East Valley quarterfinals.
Key returnees: Craig Bruinsma, QB, 6-1, 185, Sr.; T.J. Spykstra, RB, 5-9, 165, Sr.; Christian Dirksen, WR, 6-3, 200, Sr.; Josh Tampio, LB, 5-11, 210, Sr.; Derek Van Leeuwen, WR/DB, 6-2, 170, Jr.; Brad Gaudy, OL/DL, 5-11, 190, Sr.
Keys to success: If Ontario Christian can replace two of its three leading rushers from a season ago, the offense should resemble the well oiled machine from a season ago. T.J. Spykstra will carry much of the load left by 1,000-yard rusher Mike Salas and last season’s third-leading rusher, Mark Urtz, the team’s leading receiver.
Coach: Kevin Oberlander
Year, record at school: Second year, 3-7
2011 record: 3-7 (2-3)
Last playoff berth: 2005, lost to Boron 38-7 in CIF-SS Division XII first round.
Key returnees: John Wood, OL/DL, 6-1, 220, Jr.; Wyatt Callow, WR/DB, 5-9, 175, Sr.; Brad Hargis, QB/DB, 6-2, 175, Jr.; David Antonio, OL/LB, 5-9, 215, Jr.; Sarkis Panossian, RB/LB, 5-10, 175, So.; Andrew Henry, WR/LB, 6-0, 175, Jr.
Keys to success: Western Christian is fielding a youthful group this season with only five seniors in the starting lineup. If the Lancers are to make the jump to becoming a playoff contender they will need to quickly mature this season.