The Ayala football team is one of the many in the Inland Valley under a new leader. A.J. Gracia has taken over and is hoping to lead a resurgence of a program that most agree underachieved last year in going just 3-7.
It won’t be easy. The competition is pretty stiff in the Palomares League and the Bulldogs open the season on Aug. 26 with a non-league game against local rival Chino Hills which has owned them in recent years.
But the new leader is optimistic.
“There is talent here,” he said. “Everyone has been working hard and they have bought in with what we’re trying to do and that’s a good place to start.”
Like all new coaches who weren’t on the staff previously Gracia says every player comes in with a clean slate with him. No returning player is guaranteed a starting spot. Those have to be earned. That competition for playing time can only help.
One of the battles is at quarterback where freshman Cole McCain and junior James Linn are candidates for the starting spot. Linn saw some playing time last year as a back-up to the graduate Michael Morales.
The line will be led by junior center Justin Salazar and junior guard-tackle Addison Shackelford, both of whom saw considerable action last year. Senior tackle Justin Winans, out last year with a knee injury, and junior tackle Brian McMillan will also be counted on.
Ayala also graduated the running back who was the workhorse of the offense the last three years in Jordan Charles. Several players are vying for time there including junior brothers Mason and Max Hura and Makaio Provoost, also a junior.
Gracia expects his skill position players and his defensive secondary to be the strong points of his team.
“We have some good athletes and we have some depth,” he said. “There are a lot of guys that can contribute.”
Among those in that secondary are senior Emmanuel Flowers, perhaps the best player on the squad. Seniors Zach Brozick and Moses Sanchez and juniors Joshua Pryor and Dominic Gaetano should be big contributors there as well.
Gracia says the biggest question marks are the defensive line and linebacking core because of the number of players graduated. Among those the rookie coach is looking for to step are senior linebackers Josh Elliott and Parker Wallace
Many of the same players who will see time on offense will do so on defense as well with Provoost and Hura among those.
Senior Brian Papazian, who handles all the kicking duties, is also back.
Gracia has brought in some experienced assistants to help him. Matt McCain and Rick Martin will head the defensive staff while Manny Saiz will serve as offensive coordinator.
Gracia, who came to the school from Hillcrest, says he’ll judge the season on how his players progress, not necessarily on how many games it wins since the first year is usually a transition one. He had to finish out the year at his former school before moving over to Ayala full-time which slowed the process.
“It’s really about going out there and working hard and hopefully it all pays off,” he said. “We’re just really looking forward to being competitive and then see what happens.”