At 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Golden Valley High’s practice field served as center stage.
Darkness blanketed its edges as low-slung portable lights allowed the Grizzlies to wrap up one of their final practices before hosting a CIF-Southern Section Division 7 quarterfinal against El Segundo at Canyon High on Friday.
A spotlight has bathed the Grizzlies for the better part of two seasons now, Golden Valley having won a Foothill League game for the first time ever in 2015 and doubling down in 2016 with a first-ever playoff berth — and win.
They are a feel-good story with teeth. They bludgeoned opponents with a give-no-inch defense, pound the rock with a dogged rushing attack and dazzle with vertical passing prowess.
To truly understand these Grizzlies, though, you’d have to have walked away from the practice field, away from the buzzing lights to the sidewalk outside the school’s gymnasium, where 12th-grader Sammie Biedermann sat among classmates.
“From my freshman year to now, the spirit in the student section and around school is crazy different,” she says. “My freshman year, no one cared.”
Now, they do. Four Foothill League wins in two years have leveled a sledgehammer on a decade of defeats, shattering the remnants of unseemly stereotypes and blanket statements along the way.
“We’re not letting the name ‘Ghetto Valley’ get to us (anymore),” Biedermann says. “We’re trying to change the name ‘Ghetto Valley,’ and we’re all trying to help each other do better.”
The derogatory nickname originated from the perception that troublemakers filled the school when it opened in 2004.
Senior running back KJ Maduike says he heard it less as the team started to win.
“No one talks crap about us anymore,” he says.
Biedermann says the Grizzlies’ gridiron success has inspired students to go out of their way to represent the school in a positive light.
“People want to be part of a winning team,” she says.
Don’t we all.
The Santa Clarita Valley’s favorite underdog has galvanized a once-dormant fan base.
Golden Valley students no longer avoid home games like tired movie reruns.
The endings aren’t a foregone conclusion, and Grizzly athletes get to play the hero.
“People used to say, ‘I don’t want to go to the Golden Valley game. They’re going to lose anyway. I don’t want to waste my eight dollars,’” says senior defensive back DJ McIntyre.
“When you walk around on game day, people walk up to you and say, ‘I’m excited to see you win. I can’t wait to see you guys in the playoffs,’” McIntyre says.
Tenth-grader Samantha Scaglione, a member of Golden Valley’s associated student body, says she’s much more motivated to prepare banners and plan sports-related events these days.
“Because of the winning and school spirit, we have more of a drive to do that for our fellow student,” she says.
Last season, co-Athletic Director Robert Fisher and a group of football players helped start “The Den,” a sports pep club that has steadily gained support.
Students meet in room 802 during lunch on Mondays to plan themes and chants for the cheering section at football games or to mobilize fans to volleyball matches.
“Years ago we’d never have done that,” says Tony Moskal, a teacher at the school since 2005. “There was nothing to really celebrate, nothing to rally around.”
Now, there is.
The Den’s founders passed the reins to Maduike and others this season, a responsibility the running back doesn’t take lightly. He says he’s known since eighth grade that his would be the class to “change” Golden Valley. But he knows lasting change involves instilling the enthusiasm in underclassmen.
“When we came into our freshman year, there was no school spirit,” he says. “Teams weren’t doing well. We wanted to see change.”
Now, they have.
Golden Valley has seen success in boys basketball, cross country, track and field and golf, but football seems to have especially struck a chord across campus.
Now-graduated girls soccer player Natalie Amara said last year, after her team won a second Foothill League game for the first time ever, that she’d drawn inspiration from the gridiron.
“You guys saw it in football. They started getting their wins so everybody started stepping up after, and now we are kicking butt,” she said.
At the 2016 graduation ceremony, one of the class speakers thanked the football team for making it a great year.
A Grizzly football player from 2014 recently praised third-year coach Dan Kelley for taking the team “to places where players only dreamed they could go.”
But it’s not a dream.
“People say they’re from Golden Valley with much more pride than anyone ever has,” Biedermann says.
And for good reason.
This is a special time in Golden Valley history. Someday Foothill League or even first-round playoff wins will be expected rather than celebrated. An upbeat school culture, one would hope, will have long-since been cemented.
But for now, these Grizzly groundbreakers make history at every turn.
“I go to class on Monday,” says Maduike, “and the teacher says, ‘Congrats to football,’ … and she gets the whole class to clap. (She says to the students), ‘You guys really need to go to this game because if you haven’t heard already, this is history. You guys are watching history in the making.’”
That doesn’t come without pressure. The 2016 team had expectations heaped on it by the 2015 squad.
Kelley, whose no-nonsense yet fatherly approach has a lot to do with the turnaround, said it best.
“Before the (Ayala of Chino Hills) game, I said, ‘You guys are playing for more than just yourselves,’” Kelley says of last week’s first-ever playoff victory. “‘Tonight you’re playing for every player who ever wore the jersey, you’re playing for the school, for your parents, for yourselves, for the Santa Clarita Valley and for the Foothill League.
“‘You’re representing more tonight than you ever have.’”