Reporting from Damien: The morning huffing and puffing followed by late afternoon team-bonding rally cries is a sure way to know that high school football is back. Several teams set up two-a-day camps this week in preparation for season openers the first week of September. One of the most intriguing camps is at Damien High School, where former head coaches Steve Garrison (Monrovia) and Dave Merrill (Wilson) have joined new Spartans coach Greg Gano, who left Los Altos after winning four CIF-Southern Section titles.
Gano assembled a talented cast of coaches that also include former Conquerors assistants Lee Fair and John Howing in trying to turn around a program that finished 3-7 and resulted in the dismissal of former coach Scott Morrison.
Damien High School Football Practice
“After 25 years of coaching at Monrovia I still have a lot of Wildcat in my heart, but a new job and new situation helps renew the batteries,” said Garrison, in charge of the offensive line. “Coach Gano has a lot of experience and is one of the reasons I came here. He’s a proven winner and knows what it takes to build a program.
“He put together a great staff of veterans and when you get into that (coaching) room and start tossing around ideas you know you’re going to have a solid game plan for the kids.”
Damien opens the season on Sept. 4 at Rancho Cucamonga, the defending CIF-Southern Section Central Division champion that finished 13-0-1.
The Spartans have one of the most challenging schedules in the Valley, which also includes St. John Bosco, Bishop Amat, Charter Oak and always difficult Sierra League foes Glendora and Chino Hills.
“Whoever put the schedule together didn’t do us any favors,” Gano joked on Friday. “What we bring to the table is kind of the unknown, but we know what we’re up against.
“We haven’t seen our guys in pads yet, but I’m extremely pleased with the talent we have. We’re a veteran group that doesn’t have any superstars that stand out, but we have a lot of good players and a lot of depth.”
At Los Altos, confidence was never a problem for Gano’s teams, who regularly challenged for league and CIF titles.
Damien won three Sierra League titles this decade, the last in 2006. But it hasn’t won a CIF title since 1982, and is 8-12-1 over the past two seasons.
“They have to believe in themselves and what they’re capable of doing,” Gano said. “That’s our biggest challenge as coaches over the next few weeks and the beginning of the season. This is not a young team, this is a veteran group with a lot of experience who are coming off a tough season for a variety of reasons.
“When things start going bad, sometimes it’s a snowball effect and it becomes a mental barrier. We (coaches) have to get them past that mental barrier and to believe they can win every time they step on the field. I’m not going to lie and say it’s easy, this schedule is unbelievably challenging. But it can also be a huge reward if you pull it off.”
Senior quarterback James Guillen threw for 1,319 passes and 10 touchdowns. He had a solid summer passing league and has embraced the new coaching staff.
“Coming out here (to practice) we were all kind of nervous,” Guillen said. “We were wondering how the workouts would be, wondering how intense it would be.
“I think it has pumped us all up. Everyone is out here competing their (tails) off. When you get new coaches nothing is guaranteed. It doesn’t matter if you were a starter last year, you have to come out and prove yourself all over again, that’s one of the reasons you see everyone working so hard. Plus, we’re excited to start winning again. We know we’re good enough, we just have to go out there and prove it on the field.”
The coaching change has been especially difficult on senior wide receiver Ryne Morrison, the son of fired coach Scott Morrison, who decided to stick it out rather than transfer.
“I’m over the hump,” Ryne Morrison said. “My dad always taught me that life is going to present you with adversity and if you don’t fight through it, you’re never going to get anywhere.
“A person is the sum of his experiences, and this experience has helped me to grow tremendously. You take what life gives you and run with it.
“Obviously, the thought of transfer was always a discussion, but I couldn’t do that to my guys. These are my friends and teammates, I couldn’t go anywhere else. I couldn’t take my bitterness out on them or this new (coaching) staff. It took me a while to realize that, and now I’m glad I stayed. We’re on a mission to turn this around, and I want to be a big part of it.”
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