By Aram Tolegian
AZUSA – The Azusa High School football team knows that despite its 10-0 record and No. 1 seed in the Mid-Valley Division playoffs, there are still plenty of doubters around the Valley when it comes to the Aztecs’ validity.
“They haven’t played anyone,” the skeptics say. Others argue that Azusa comes from the weak Montview League.
After allowing just 30 total points this season, there’s one group of Aztecs that’s anxiously awaiting its chance to show the Valley just how real Azusa is, and that would be the defensive line.
“I think it’s the past years, the bad teams, that have people thinking we’re all luck,” defensive tackle Nick Valverde said when asked to explain why Azusa still has its share of doubters.
The Aztecs will get a chance to start proving the naysayers wrong at Citrus College on Friday night, when they host Village Christian in the first round.
Winning is nothing for Azusa. The Aztecs won 21 games the previous two seasons, including an unbeaten run in the Montview that they extended to three years this season.
Last year’s team reached the semifinals of the playoffs before bowing out to eventual champion San Dimas, but until this year’s undefeated run, Azusa had been viewed like the flu – something that could cause a lot of damage but eventually will pass.
That hasn’t happened, though. By being 10-0 and technically the favorites to win the division, area fans are having to view Azusa in a whole new light that some folks don’t seem eager to do.
“I agree with that,” defensive end Luis Nunez said, referring to the argument that Azusa hasn’t played anybody, “but it doesn’t matter; we’ll still show them what we’ve got in CIF.”
Added defensive end Edwin Garcia: “If we had a choice, we’d want to take on a tougher nonleague, too, but we don’t have control over that. All we could do was play who we got and play hard every game.”
Garcia, Nunez and Valverde join forces with interior tackle Alex Tapia to form what coaches consider to be the main reason Azusa’s defense is allowing just three points per game and has six shutouts.
Weight-wise, Tapia is the largest of the group at 250 pounds. The entire quartet doesn’t have a player over 6 feet tall, but nobody weighs less than 190 pounds either. So what you get is an athletic group that can use quickness and strength to subdue bigger offensive lines.
“I think everyone plays a role on this defense,” Tapia said while trying to deflect credit for Azusa’s gaudy numbers. “So it’s basically the whole defense that makes us good.”
It’s true that Azusa boasts two of the best linebackers around in Jose Nunez (101 tackles) and Eric Perez (94 tackles), but without the front four making their job easier, the stats wouldn’t follow.
“If you have a good d-line, it’s easier for the corners and the linebackers to get tackles,” Garcia said. “Since we’re smaller than other linemen, we just have to outwork everybody we see. We play each play like it’s our last one.”
Although the outside world is taking a wait-and-see approach with the Aztecs, Garcia’s noticed in several places he goes that the city is firmly behind the team.
“It’s kind of funny, because I go sometimes to our closest Taco Bell, and there are some past alumni who used to play football at Azusa there and they recognize who I am and they say `What’s up?’ to me and they know who I am,” Garcia said.
“They say we’re doing something great for the city. It feels like every Friday our community comes together and watches our games. It’s not like we’re playing for each other, but the city, too.”
As the Village Christian game nears, the players know that what they do Friday and hopefully over the next four weeks offers them a shot at local infamy.
With their city behind them and most of the outside world waiting for the fall, Nunez, Valverde, Tapia and Garcia are more than happy to make sure anything trying to get in Azusa’s way gets dealt with in the exact same way as the Aztecs’ previous 10 victims.
“Anything less than a CIF championship would be a disappointment,” Garcia said. “We want to earn respect because we know we’re lacking that respect.
“We want to prove people wrong and prove to the Valley that we are legit.
“We believe if we win CIF, there’s no possible regrets that we can have.