St. Paul is ready for football season
SANTA FE SPRINGS – St. Paul appears to be ready for the football season, like most high schools these days. With no spring practice and players working out on their own, everyone is excited to get started.
One problem. It’s only May and the future is still uncertain at this point.
Coming off of a second consecutive undefeated Del Rey League title and a 2019 CIF-Southern Section championship game appearance, the Swordsmen have unfinished business to attend to in 2020.
The last title seems so long ago, as they defeated Palmdale, 42-14 in 2007.
But, eighth-year coach Rick Zepeda seems to have the Swordsmen on the brink of great things to come.
Zepeda and defensive coordinator Juan Vigil recently sat down and talked about the state of St.Paul football.
Zepeda has seen his teams steadily improve in the last seven years, culminating with a tough, 20-16 loss last season to Aquinas in the CIF Division 5 title game.
“I would say we’re hungrier now, all because we lost that game,” Zepeda said. “There’s a burning sensation in all of our stomachs still.
“I was telling the boys that there was no one, or perhaps a couple of other teams, that are more hungry than us to get back on that field and get that feeling out of our stomachs again.”
Zepeda took over a program in 2013 that had only 22 players on varsity.
“We went back to concentrating on just working on our own kids and getting a mindframe of competing at a higher level,” said Zepeda, who graduated from St.Paul in 1988. “I would say about our fourth year we believed in each other.”
After three consecutive years of no post-season action, Zepeda began the beginning of a four-year, deep run in the playoffs. Over the last two seasons the Swordsmen have compiled a 23-4 overall record and a perfect 8-0 in league.
The Swordsmen advanced to one quarterfinal and two semifinals prior to last year’s title game.
“We just began to chip away at it and it’s really about the mentality of the players,” Zepeda said.
Zepeda, who was the freshman coach under legendary coach Marijon Ancich from ‘95 to ‘97, became head coach at St. Paul in 2013.
“Sometimes, it’s overwhelming because I feel the weight of all of the traditions on my shoulders at St.Paul,” said Zepeda, who played football at St. Paul as a defensive back.
A couple of traditions that have been around for decades are the senior walk on the field at the last home game and the individual senior farewell walk in the 200 building on campus before the underclassmen.
This week Zepeda and the rest of the coaches will have a drive-by for the senior players.
Presently, the team is doing zoom workouts and will wait for any word on when they can resume any kind of training as a team.
“We don’t know if we are going to get the green light tomorrow night at 8:00,” Zepeda said. “We don’t know if it’s going to be October 10th. But we will not have any excuses if we’re not ready.
“If we’re coaching a team that we have to motivate to train, then we’re not a very good, well-coached team.”
Zepeda, who has a daughter Corina, who is an incoming senior and captain of the song team and a son, Orlando, who is an incoming freshman, who will play football and baseball, married a St. Paul graduate, Sarah, from the class of 1995.
Defensive coordinator Virgil has been with Zepeda for 15 years.
“Our relationship is special and he is like my big brother,” Vigil said. “I met coach when I was 22 and a graduate assistant at East L. A. College.
“He just kind of took me under his wing.”
Vigil has been with Zepeda during the turn-around in the last seven years from a 1-9 team in 2013 to last year’s team.
“The biggest thing was that the players decided that they were not going to lose. The coaches decided they were not going to lose. Our work ethic has always been the same and the biggest tradition at St. Paul is winning.”
Vigil and offensive coordinator Danny Hernandez have been holding zoom meetings for the players.
“The most important thing was just making sure we don’t change the ordinary,” Vigil said. “The beauty of this thing (pandemic) is we have the opportunity to reach the guy that played baseball or ran track. Those are the things that are the brighter part of it now, since we can now reach them better.”
Recently, a few of the players worked out at the home of St. Paul supporters, Jim and Sue Willson – social distancing of course was followed. The Willson’s son, Chris, was a St. Paul graduate, who played quarterback for the Swordsmen. He went on to play baseball at Wake Forest and football at USC. His sister, Liz, is a graduate of South Hills and the University of Kansas.
Chris Willson was on varsity in the 2007-’09 seasons and was quarterback in 2009 under the guidance of Ancich.
Chris Willson, who remembers Marion Miller, one of the four athletes that worked out at his parents house, as a 6trh grader.
“He was an absolute beast and he has great speed. He is poised to have a great year,” said Willson by phone from South Dakota.
Willson started the Community Outreach Program, a fundamentals foundation and donated helmets to the teams. He was head coach of the So Cal Trojans (6-12 year old levels) in 2017 in the Snoop Dogg League. “That’s when I learned my work ethics. There was a lot of pride there.”
The Willson’s have the perfect setup in a spacious backyard and the players took advantage with some work on the ropes, sledge hammer, giant tire, weights and jump rope.
Incoming seniors, Isaiah Castillo, Daniel Pallan, Brandon Cortez and Miller all worked up quite a sweat before sitting down for an interview.
All three seniors were named to the All Del Rey League first team last season.
Marion Miller, Jr., Offensive line – Miller, a 6-5, 345 pound guard this past season, who lives in Los Angeles, has quick reactions and can jump rope with the best of them. Miller is the oldest of three boys and started playing football at eight and is an avid San Francisco 49er fan. He was elated when his cousin, Richard Sherman, signed with the bay area team. He has two uncles, Terry Adolph, Jr. and Mose Adolph, who were drafted by the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers and Golden State Warriors, respectively.
A highlight for Miller was meeting Rams Hall of Fame member, Jackie Slater, at his camp at Azusa Pacific University last summer.
“Jackie was watching me the whole time,” said Miller, who didn’t know who Slater was at the time until he googled his name. “It was an honor to meet him and work with him.”
Miller was elated to finally see some of his teammates.
“It was great seeing the guys again, building up our leadership and brotherhood. We haven’t seen each other since March.”
Miller had a memory from last season which is still fresh on his mind. “During our championship game practice during the week, we were all lacking on our P’s and Q’s and coach pulled us aside, after he made us run, and he said ‘you may not get another shot at this and take every moment like it’s your last’. That stuck with me ever since.”
Daniel Pallan, Cornerback/linebacker/safety – Pallan, who lives in La Puente, also runs track in the 100, 200 and 400 and the long jump. Pallan was seen by the current St.Paul freshman coach when he was playing for the youth team, West Covina Bruins. A big moment early in the life of Pallan came at the age of six. He was misdiagnosed with Cancer with a tumor in his leg. He has fully recovered.
“This is a great chance to push each other and get better,” said Pallan, of the brief workout. “Just practicing with my brothers makes me go harder.
“We’re just trying to finish off of last season. Losing that was tough. I’ll be ecstatic if we could get started back to practice.”
Isaiah Castillo, Defensive end – Castillo also played baseball as a freshman and a sophomore at catcher. He didn’t play this past season so he could concentrate more on football.
Castillo is from a St. Paul family, as his uncles went there and also his brother, David, who was an outside linebacker.
“We just have to work hard this year and come out strong,” Castillo said. “We’ve been going on zoom and working out. It’s different. Looking at each other, it’s crazy.
“As a senior, it’s the best year of your life. On Friday’s, it’s everyone’s big day and you’re glowing that day. St. Paul Friday is not like any other school’s Friday.”
Brandon Cortez, Safety – In 2019, Brandon played his first season on varsity. He has Type 1 Diabetes and has to constantly check to see if his blood pressure is too high or too low. He is a scholar athlete in honor classes with a 4.5 GPA.
He played baseball as a junior and plays middle infield.
“It’s so important for everyone to be a team right now and get on each other to keep working,” Cortez said. “We all want to be on a certain path right now and don’t want anyone to fall behind.
“It’s great to be here working out,” Cortez said. “I’ve got a Smith machine at home and have been working out.
“There is a lot of tradition here and I’m looking forward to it in my senior year.”
Cortez has a brother that is two years older than him and played defensive end and also threw the shot put on the track team.
“This (coronavirus) is something we’ve never really experienced at all, but we all have to get through it.
“It’s a big family and it’s amazing here at St. Paul and looking forward to it. Friday Night Lites is the best day of the week here at St. Paul.”
And finally, Friday and Saturday is an interesting online contest that has been capturing the attention of schools up and down the state.
The California Coaches Association has been holding an online contest called the California Helmet Tourney.
Sixty four schools started the competition and it has come down to St. Paul’s helmet versus a school from Northern California – Aptos. It’s the Swordsmen vs. the Mariners.
Along the way, St.Paul’s helmets defeated Edison, Servite, Briggs and another local football power – none other than the Bishop Amat Lancers. The Swordsmen defeated the Lancers online in the Elite Eight.
Now, if only St. Paul could get Amat to play them on the field again.