This football season at Bishop Diego High School is one big carpe diem. Two years ago, the Cardinals had a strong sophomore class and went 11-2. Last year, they rode a school-record 12 wins into the CIF Northwest Division semifinals before suffering a defeat. Now they have 23 seniors on their roster with the ultimate goal of going all the way to a CIF championship.
Tom Crawford takes nothing for granted. Bishop’s head coach of 14 years learned the necessity of thorough preparation during the 17 years he practiced law in Los Angeles, primarily as a defense attorney. A stint as a volunteer assistant coach at Birmingham High encouraged him to switch careers. When Bishop Diego offered him a full-time job, he took it despite a substantial pay cut.
Crawford serves as dean of men and teaches classes in government at the 300-student coed school. His football coaching staff includes Bishop alumni Ralph Molina (Class of ’79), a Santa Barbara Police lieutenant who moonlights as the team’s defensive coordinator; Steve Robles (Class of ’81), a retired police officer; and Matt Capritto (Class of 2000), who teaches history and social studies at the school.
The ever-expanding football season made for a short summer. Bishop’s varsity players reported for practice on August 5. Three weeks later, they can finally start looking forward to a game. This is the story of the Cardinals’ week of practice leading up to their season opener last Friday night, August 30, against the Santa Maria Saints.
MONDAY, AUGUST 26
Rap music booms out of a loudspeaker as the players punt, pass, and kick the ball around before the official start of practice. Coach Crawford arrives on the scene. When he first heard the lyrics to the blaring songs, he says, “I told the kids that the English department just committed suicide.”
At 3:30 p.m., the speaker is turned off, and the Cardinals organize themselves into rows and spend 10 minutes stretching and loosening up their limbs. “The Monday practice is important to get everybody on the same page,” Crawford says. “We introduce the week’s opponent in terms of schemes. We correct things that need fixing. Friday seems a long way off to a teenager, but we’ve got a lot to work on. Now, excuse me, I’m gonna yell at them.”
At 3:40, Crawford positions 11 players in the Santa Maria’s defensive formation and outlines the blocking assignments of his offense. “[Crawford’s] offensive mind is amazing,” says Molina, who has two sons on this year’s team. “He brought us a college-type offense. At first, I thought, we’ve got to simplify that. But he’s so intelligent and teaches the game so well.”
At 3:50, the Cardinals perform quickness and agility drills. Robles nudges the running backs with a homemade prod — a piece of PVC pipe with a boxing glove taped at the end.
The practice continues for three hours in orderly 10- or 15-minute segments, punctuated by whistles and shouts. Managers place bottles of water and Gatorade around the field, and the players are allowed to take drinks whenever they’re thirsty, as long as they don’t linger at it. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,” Crawford shouts. “You can drink while you’re running.” The afternoon temperature, in the 70s, is not too taxing.
There is a round of technique drills by position. Robles sends the running backs through a chute that resembles a compact car wash. Instead of big brushes, the players are buffeted by six spring-loaded dummies, three on each side.
Ron Heller works with the tight ends. He played that position in the NFL, earning a Super Bowl ring with the San Francisco 49ers. Heller joined the Bishop family by marrying a graduate of the school and sending his daughters there.
“These kids have it made,” Capritto says of the caring supervision that’s devoted to the team. On the other hand, it’s a lot of hard work for everybody. “Football is different,” Capritto says. “In basketball and baseball, you’re always playing games. We’ve put in hundreds of practices. The kids give up a lot to be out here. So many things are pulling them in different directions.”
TUESDAY, AUGUST 27
The players start every day (game days excepted) at 7 a.m. in the school’s weight room. There is a sign on the wall: “Did you work out today? Your opponent did.”
They head for today’s practice at 6:30 p.m. at Santa Barbara City College’s La Playa Stadium, the field where they play their home games under a rental agreement. It has a durable carpet of artificial turf and stadium lights for night games.
The evening includes a tackling drill for 10 minutes, the Cardinals’ only full contact in practice all week. “We’ve stepped back from it, partly because of the sensitivity to concussions,” Crawford says. “If it was a problem [in last week’s scrimmage] against Hueneme, we’d tackle every day this week. This is such a veteran group, we haven’t needed that.”
It’s another long day for Crawford. He attended a Tri-Valley League coaches’ meeting in Oxnard Monday night and didn’t get home until 11 p.m. “I’m beat,” he says. But he does not let his players know it.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 28
The Cardinals return to their school field for practice. It also serves as the baseball diamond and soccer pitch, and the grass is threadbare in patches. There is a single soccer goal, and attached to it is a banner advertising the football team’s lofty ranking by Cal-Hi Sports in 2012.
Thomas Lash, a senior linebacker, says the attention they receive in the classroom keeps their priorities from getting out of whack. “We don’t slack off in class,” says Lash, who takes a history course from Capritto. “The coaches always know how you’re doing.”
Joe Salcedo, a 6’6″ 270-pound tackle, is being recruited by Division I colleges because of his physical attributes, but he hits the books, too. “Three of our five offensive linemen have four-point GPAs,” he says.
Joe Stevenson’s grade average is 4.4. The 5’8″, 240-pound guard wants to study engineering in college and expects this will be his last football season. “Our coaches prepare us well,” he says. “It gets tiresome, but you have to push through it. Hopefully we’ll go to the championship and leave on a good note. We’re capable of doing it as long as we stay focused and play hard.”
“We can’t get ahead of ourselves,” says center Jack Braniff.
“We have to treat the Santa Maria game like we haven’t proved anything this year,” Stevenson says.
This practice is not perfect. Crawford grimaces when offense fumbles a pitchout. They don’t have to hear that they messed up. A minute later, he shouts, “Why are you walking back to the huddle, gentlemen?”
There is blown coverage in a seven-on-seven drill. “Defense, drop and give me 10 [pushups],” Molina growls. “You want to know why? Nobody’s talking. Pick up the pace, or you’ll do 300 after practice.”
Capritto chimes in, “Why aren’t you running, Peter? You’re jogging. You can’t do that.”
The practice goes on for more than three hours. Finally, at 6:47 p.m., Crawford announces, “Circle up. Let’s go.” The players shed their helmets and pads as they stretch their limbs. Then they gather around the coaches to hear the last word of the day. “You know it’s true: This week has been shabby,” Crawford says. “Clean it up. You’ve got to communicate and learn to do things right under pressure. It all comes down to how we handle the stuff we can control.”
John Samson, a lineman known as “Cowboy,” says a prayer: “Dear God, thank you for this day. Help us in school and home. Bless us Friday. Amen.”
THURSDAY, AUGUST 29
The temperature soars to 94 degrees, the hottest day of the year in Santa Barbara. It’s also Mass day at Bishop Diego, and all the male students must wear ties. Fortunately, at the day-before-game football practice, the players can wear shorts instead of full gear.
They linger in the shade outside the weight room before it’s time to take the field. As Braniff pulls on his jersey, a red stocking falls out. “It’s my sister’s,” he says. “It must have been in the wash.” His practice gear is laundered at home every night. Others reek of soil and sweat. “It’s obvious by now who hasn’t washed their jerseys all week,” Braniff says.
Crawford checks on a player who had a concussion two weeks ago. “If you feel a headache or nausea, speak out,” the coach says. The practice is devoted to special teams and running through plays.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 30: GAME DAY
It was 93 degrees in the afternoon when Bishop’s junior varsity team played Santa Maria on the school field. At seaside La Playa Stadium, 45 minutes before 7:30 kickoff of the varsity game, Crawford says, “This feels like air conditioning.”
The coaches are all wearing new hats with a logo designed by Capritto. Molina is superstitious about the rest of his attire. “I’ve got the same shirt and the same Nike shoes I’ve worn for three years,” he says. “The only time I wear them is at games. Last year I wore a new pullover at the Mission Prep game. It wasn’t going so well, and I took the damn thing off.” Capritto saved a shoelace that had broken during Bishop’s winning streak. “I almost threw it away,” he says, “but I put it in my bag instead.”
“We always sit in the same chairs at the team meal,” Crawford says. Today’s pregame meal was served at the school early in the afternoon by parents. “Chicken pasta, salad, bread, and lots of water,” Crawford says.
The teams warm up on opposite sides of the 50-yard line. The Cardinals are clad in red uniforms with black numbers. Santa Maria’s Saints wear white with red trim. Clouds to the west of the stadium take on a reddish hue as the sun sets on the balmy evening.
Before the national anthem is sung, the Cardinals receive final instructions from the coaches. “If you need a blow,” Crawford says, “be sure to communicate with the coaches.” He adds, “I don’t have anything else to say other than, take care of business.”
Molina reminds the seniors that they are beginning the last chapter of their careers. “Whose time is it?” he asks.
“What kind of football are you gonna play?”
The experience of the Cardinals emerges immediately against a Santa Maria team that is coming off a 1-9 season. Bishop’s versatile Anthony Carter takes the opening kickoff at the 15 and breaks into the clear. He runs 69 yards before a shoestring tackle brings him down at the Santa Maria 16. Two plays later, All-CIF running back Aidan Williams powers up the middle for 11 yards and a touchdown. Less than a minute into the game, it’s 6-0.
Lightning strikes again after a Santa Maria punt is downed on the Bishop 10. Williams rips off a 41-yard gain, and on the next play, Gabe Molina passes to a wide-open tight end Nolan Tooley for a 49-yard TD. Santiago Bollag drills the first of six straight conversion kicks for a 13-0 lead.
Williams is woozy on the sideline. He had been suffering from flu symptoms earlier in the week, and the last run exhausted him. He takes a seat, but the Cardinals’ running game does not suffer behind the veteran offensive line. Plowing through holes are Abel Gonzalez, Ricky Herrera, Daniel Molina, Walter Hernandez, and B.J. Murillo, whose 40-yard scamper puts the Cardinals ahead 20-0 at the end of the first quarter.
Bishop’s two-quarterback rotation works like a charm. Carter and Gabe Molina alternate taking the snaps, bringing in the plays from Crawford. “It keeps each quarterback fresh,” says Carter. He shoots a nifty shovel pass to Gonzalez for a 49-yard score. Molina connects with Murillo on a 33-yard TD pass, and Bishop leads at halftime, 34-0.
In the SBCC locker room, Crawford tells the team they won’t run up the score by throwing the ball. He wants to see them execute the ground game: “Stay on your blocks, be physical, finish them.” Molina reminds the defense to keep track of the Saints’ athletic quarterback Dominique Garrett.
A short TD run by Murillo puts Bishop ahead 41-0 in the third quarter. Because the Cardinals lead by more than 35 points, the clock runs without stopping throughout the final period. Bishop’s defensive substitutes secure a shutout, and Nunzio Billotti’s dazzling 73-yard interception return caps a 48-0 victory.
After the postgame handshakes with the Saints, and the singing of the alma mater with the cheerleaders, the Cardinals hear parting comments from the coaches. Crawford is pleased with the team’s depth, telling them he couldn’t tell the difference when reserves took the place of starters. He says they have to work on their conditioning and remember the times they came up short. “I don’t like to see us in a fourth-and-one,” he says. “If you’d stayed on a block, we’d have a first down.”
The Cardinals’ next opponent will be a serious challenge. They’ll be traveling to Santa Ynez, whose Pirates have opened their season an 11-7 victory over Dos Pueblos. “We’ll have Santa Ynez game film on Huddle tomorrow morning when you wake up,” Crawford says. (Huddle is a computer program through which high school teams exchange videos that can be transmitted to players’ computers and smart phones.)
“Good job, Amtrak,” a man says to Braniff as the Cardinals leave the stadium. “That was my Little League coach,” the Bishop center says. Braniff is feeling good. “We all did our jobs,” he says. “It was a good beginning. The whole process starts again Monday.”