A strong case can be made that Escondido’s San Pasqual Academy might have the most unique and interesting football team in the entirety of San Diego County.
The distinctions that separate the Dragons from the norm are both plentiful and conspicuous. To begin with, SPA fields a reduced roster of just 12 participants. In addition, instead of playing conventional 11-Man football, the Dragons engage in a fascinating hybrid of the sport that employs just eight players on each side. Moreover, SPA’s schedule is one that, because of understandable considerations, is a slimmed down eight-game slate.
But the most fundamental reason why SPA stands out is because it is a residential school designed for foster teens. Opened in 2001, its driving purpose is to provide a stable and caring environment whereby at-risk youngsters or those coming from challenging backgrounds can receive an individualized education and develop the requisite skills needed for independent living. No other institution in the County, perhaps even in California, can make such a claim.
As a result, the football team possesses a dynamic and singularity that separates it from any other squad. It is made up of a group of individuals who have known difficulties and hardships that most of the general population has never had to face. That fact alone makes it exceedingly notable when the Dragons rise up with their limited numbers and overcome built-in disadvantages that might discourage or dispirit less determined athletes.
That’s why what the Dragons are accomplishing on the gridiron in 2019 merits real attention. It was just last season that because of injuries, a lack of player availability and safety concerns, SPA was forced to limit itself to just a three-game schedule.
But thanks to a core group of dedicated seniors who have paved the way and provided real direction and leadership, the Dragons are breathing fire this year and taking no prisoners. While racing out to a perfect 5-0 record, SPA has given unmistakable evidence of its superiority, outscoring the opposition by a sizeable 150 to 44 margin. “Our guys went through a lot of challenges last season,” says first-year head coach but longtime defensive assistant Andrew Serrano. “But the seniors returned with the mindset of coming back strong, being consistent, working hard and staying accountable. And they’re the kids that are holding us together.”
Serrano also points to his team’s renewed commitment to put in the time during off-season endeavors such as weight training as having paid huge dividends.
And building a positive relationship with kids who haven’t had it easy and might wonder about the sincerity of those adults around them is a critical hurdle that Serrano and his assistants – much to their credit – appear to have surmounted. “I’ve spent a lot of time with them and I believe they’ve come to trust me and the rest of the staff,” indicates the coach.
Much of the Dragons’ current success has been predicated on getting impactful play and genuine production from both sides of the ball.
Operating out of a pro-back set that can feature five different formations, the Dragons have shown a knack for putting points on the board. In Kalan Taylor, SPA has a disciplined, run-oriented quarterback who has a feel for the offense and has averaged 90 rushing yards and a touchdown per game.
But it is back Junior Ramirez who shines the brightest when toting the rock. Considered to be a beast on the field, Ramirez has translated his aggression and powerful north-south running into 125 yards and a pair of scores per outing.
Two other big-time offensive threats have been the versatile Evilio Charfuros who has gathered in four TD receptions and the multi-dimensional Eli Rodriguez, a gamer who has posted a combined seven touchdowns on the ground and through the air.
Meanwhile, anchoring the line and providing praiseworthy work upfront has been youthful Mario Rader, a strong center who is oozing with potential.
As for the defense – which normally functions out of a 3-3-2 deployment – the tone is set by active and heady middle linebacker Alex Sanchez who seems to be all over the field while averaging 11 tackles and two sacks a contest.
The two-way Ramirez is another defender who gets it done from his defensive end spot, where he leads the team in sacks and racks up plenty of stops.
Doing yeoman duty down in the trenches has been Danny Ventura, one heck of a nose guard that knows how to fill gaps and take on double teams.
Ramon Higuera-Ochoa has also been a factor while excelling at linebacker while the heretofore mentioned Charfuros has been a ballhawk on the back end, garnering four interceptions.
Because virtually all his players go both ways and the need to conserve their energy is vital, Serrano frankly admits that his charges are encouraged to take an occasional break in order to get a bit of rest on the field when not directly involved with a play call. “If they don’t,” says Serrano, “it makes it a lot harder for them to last.”
Due to the Dragons’ splendid and consistent play, they have set the stage for a dramatic Ocean (League) showdown on October 18 when SPA will play host to another unbeaten team, accomplished Foothills Christian. That contest figures to be for all the marbles and Serrano isn’t hesitant to acknowledge that he likes his club’s chances. “If we can stay healthy and focused,” says Serrano, “I have no doubt that we can take our league.”
But in the grand scheme of things and looking at the bigger picture, Serrano is out to emphasize telling lessons that go beyond football. “Through this game we can teach some basic skills of life like discipline, working hard and the value of not quitting,” says the coach. “It basically comes down to helping them see that it’s all about not wasting your talents as a human being.”
The Dragons’ home field is a nice and tidy one that offers a spectacular vista of a nearby mountain range that sits across the road from California 78. Quite simply, it is a beautiful sight. Fittingly, so has the ascension of the Dragon football squad been something to behold. Twelve dogged youngsters, guided by a steadfast and devoted coaching crew, have created quite a stir with their emergence as a bona fide force on the gridiron. Their inspiring exploits have made them, arguably, the feel-good story of this football season.