An open letter from Valencia High football alumni to the 2016 Vikings on the morning of their CIF-Southern Section Division 2 semifinal at San Clemente:
Good morning. Excitement and nervous energy probably made it hard to sleep last night. Undoubtedly you’ve looked yourself in the mirror already, pondering what the day will hold.
Tonight at 7 p.m., after all, the hopes of an entire high school and community will rest on your shoulders as you attempt to move closer to the program’s first-ever CIF crown.
Valencia’s playoff history can be especially painful this time of year, something you’ve mostly told yourselves isn’t applicable. This is a new year, a new team, a new opportunity.
While that’s true, there are a few lessons to be learned from the Vikings’ early-winter struggles. Truths that can help guide you through tonight and the years to come.
First, nerves are natural. Just don’t put any extra pressure on yourself. Play loose.
Former Valencia running back Manuel White, who went on to play for UCLA and briefly for the Washington Redskins, said this week that his anxiety before the 1999 CIF semifinals and final was comparable to the jitters he felt before NCAA Division 1 games.
“You want to perform. You want to play your best game and not make mistakes,” White says. “… At that age, you feel like it’s the end of the world.”
White, Valencia’s all-time leading rusher, capped a nearly 7,000-yard high-school career with just 60 yards in the ’99 Division 3 title game, a blowout loss to Hart.
“I would put so much pressure on myself,” White says. “I think I played better when I was loose.”
Easier said than done, especially for you 20 seniors. Michael Herrick was a junior when he quarterbacked Valencia to the 2004 Division 2 title game. But that feeling of playing what could be his last game sunk in long after he left Valencia High. It happened during his final collegiate season at Northern Arizona University.
“I know for those seniors, I’m almost positive they’re thinking, ‘This could be it. This could be the last time I suit up,’” Herrick said by phone this week. “It’s a weird feeling.”
“Treat it like any other game,” Herrick says. “Go out and prepare to be in position to make plays.”
Secondly, be you.
Leading up to Valencia’s 2001 Division 3 title bout with Hart, then-Vikings-coach and current athletic director Brian Stiman said, “We’ve been notorious for going out there and not doing what we’re capable of. … They feel they have to be better than they are to beat Hart. All they have to do is be themselves.”
At that point the Vikings had never beaten Hart. There was pressure to “Make It Stop,” like large cutout stop signs littering Valencia’s campus reportedly read at the time.
It’s hard to definitively say Valencia tried too hard on that December night. But it lost again, this time 42-13 in front of an estimated 9,000 fans at COC.
The temptation tonight will be to press. To think you have to play above and beyond what you’ve done all year to get Valencia over the championship hump.
That’s not the case. And even if it was, the mindset will hinder, not help.
You’ve gotten to this point as a team.
You lack a transcendent star, but your whole has proven better than most teams’ parts.
You’re balanced offensively, bleeding teams with a stout running game and carving them up with long pass plays. You’re a smothering, swarming group on defense.
You’re also a great mix of newcomers and veterans, wildly talented underclassmen like running back Moises Haynes and receiver Mykael Wright and rock-solid seniors like quarterback Aaron Thomas and linebacker Tariq Speights.
Don’t be a hero tonight. Play your part.
Thirdly, heart-wrenching pain may in fact await you.
The Vikings have played in 10, now 11, semifinals. They’ve advanced on just four occasions, losing five times in the semis between 2004 and 2013, the year Valencia lost to Hart in a title game for the third time.
“Of course it’s a little frustrating not to get over the hump and play in the title game,” says former Vikings quarterback Alex Bishop, who threw for 7,492 yards and a program-best 81 TDs in his career but lost semifinal games as the starter in 2009 and 2010.
Even a trip to the finals, though, doesn’t guarantee a fairy-tale ending.
Valencia had to endure Hart’s ’99 CIF plaque ceremony with Queen’s “We Are the Champions” playing over Cougar Stadium loudspeakers — akin to watching a sibling unwrap presents on what you thought was your birthday.
“Valencia wanted us,” Hart fullback Pat Norton said after the game. “And once they got us, they didn’t know what to do with us.”
In the 2004 championship, the Vikings faced USA Today’s No. 1 team in the nation, Mission Viejo, a squad guided by future NFL quarterback Mark Sanchez and propelled by fullback Chane Moline.
“Honestly, this is the best team I’ve seen in maybe 24 years,” Stiman said of the Diablos at the time.
The Vikings, even with an uber-talented, swashbuckling offense, fell behind 28-0 at halftime, turning the ball over four times in the game and surrendering six sacks.
“We got our butt kicked,” Herrick recalled this week.
The good news — and lesson No. 4 — is that it’s not all about a CIF title.
Since it opened in 1994, Valencia High has produced some of the best players this valley has ever seen, stars like White, Herrick, Shane Vereen and Steven Manfro.
But even those guys didn’t win a title because, frankly, it’s hard and doesn’t happen for most teams.
“You can’t hang your hat on a CIF title game,” Stiman says. “There’s not a lot of them that come around, and you don’t have a lot of opportunities to have one. … What you can hang your hat on are milestones — great accomplishments you achieve as a team, great accomplishments by a player.”
For Herrick, those include winning Valencia’s first-ever Foothill League title in 2004, tossing 73 passing touchdowns and racking up 11,000 passing yards, a Southern Section record until this season.
Talking about Calabasas quarterback Tristan Gebbia surpassing his mark, Herrick summed up lesson No. 4.
“The things that nobody can ever take away from me are the relationships and the memories I have,” Herrick says, “some of the best times in my athletic career.”
Herrick didn’t win a title, but he went on to a successful college football career and now works as a police officer in Santa Barbara.
Bishop didn’t win a title, but he went on to play Division 1 college baseball and now works locally in real estate.
White is a Pasadena firefighter. Vereen won a Super Bowl.
They are all part of the tightly knit fraternity that defines Valencia football.
“The brotherhood. That’s the biggest thing,” Bishop says. “A lot of people say you don’t remember the games or certain plays, but you always remember who you played with and who you had by your side during those battles.”