After years of struggle, Calabasas' (Calif.) football success excites some, rouses others

After years of struggle, Calabasas' (Calif.) football success excites some, rouses others

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After years of struggle, Calabasas' (Calif.) football success excites some, rouses others

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Calabasas star Darnay Holmes (Photo: Chuck Kirman, The Ventura Star)

Calabasas star Darnay Holmes (Photo: Chuck Kirman, The Ventura County Star)

In his first two seasons in a high school football program, Calabasas (Calif.) resident Stone Smith didn’t have to search far for motivation.

He found it inside the Westlake High stadium, as a member of the Warriors’ underclass teams.

“I’d look up and see the banners for the CIF championships they had won,” says Smith, an offensive lineman. “I’d wonder if I would have a chance to be on a team that won one of those.”

The dream-quest remained steadfast for Smith. It’s the ultimate landing spot and final destination that’s so surprising.

After two years at Westlake, Smith opted to enroll at the neighborhood school and play for the hometown Coyotes. Two seasons in, he’s part of a football reboot at Calabasas High that represents an upsurge of biblical proportions.

A year ago, Calabasas won its first CIF-Section Championship, finished 13-2 and qualified for its first state playoff spot. Come Saturday night, the top-seeded and undefeated Coyotes (14-0) can earn their second consecutive section title when they take on host and No.2-seeded Capistrano Valley at 7 p.m.

These Coyotes now plan big and another CIF-SS crown is just the next step on the agenda.

“We want to win a state championship,” said senior wide receiver/defensive back Darnay Holmes. “That’s been our goal from Day 1.”

Before Casey Clausen assumed the reins as head coach in 2014, the program was as lowly as gravel.

There were five 0-10 seasons and four one-win campaigns since 2002. In the seasons between 2003 and 2013, there were a total of nine victories.

The nadir was the 30-game losing streak that stretched from 2004 to 2006. The last playoff berth before 2013 occurred in 2001.

Yes, Calabasas has risen from the dead like Lazarus.

Clausen, a former quarterback at the University of Tennessee who served as a top assistant under Bill Redell at Oaks Christian School, says wins and championships are not his top priorities.

“It’s watching kids move onto the next level, if that’s what they want to do,” he said. “I’ve told our players that our goal is to develop them as players and help them get better and achieve their goals.

“The wins and the championships are for them. To me, it doesn’t really matter if we’re 5-5 or 10-0 as long as the kids are learning and enjoying the game of football. I get my pleasure from watching them sign their college letters of intent on signing day.”

Last year’s championship team sent seven players into college football programs. At least three more highly esteemed prospects will sign their letters in February with quarterback Tristan Gebbia and wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson Jr. both committed to Nebraska and Holmes taking his choice of more than 40 offers. Junior wide receiver/defensive back Brendan Radley-Hiles will likely be among the top recruits of the Class of 2018.

The burgeoning talent level for a one-time moribund program has both excited a school and brought out the cynics.

The CIF-SS launched an inquiry before the 2015 season in the wake of more than two dozen transfers into the program. No wrongdoing was discovered and no sanctions were levied.

Search the internet and up pops the critics who deride the “hired hands” and “mercenaries” on the football team.

Calabasas’ players and coaches say they’ve adjusted to the criticism.

“It bothered me at first,” said Smith, the starting center. “People have said we’re not a team, that we’re just a bunch of outside players who have come in to play football and nothing more. I’ve gotten past that because it’s not true.

“We’re a team in the best sense and we all care about each other.”

Keyshawn Johnson Jr. grew up in Calabasas but played at Mission Viejo High as a freshman. He enrolled at Calabasas High a year later.

“Outsiders can say what they want, but we know we’re a close-knit team and we all enjoy playing with each other,” he said. “For me, this is home. I’ve got good memories for the rest of my life.”

Holmes transferred to Calabasas after helping the Newbury Park High football team reach the CIF-SS finals as a sophomore. He says he’s undaunted by criticism from outside.

“More fuel for the fire,” he said. “We use that as motivation for just about every goal we have as a team. People don’t realize that this is a good place to play football and go to school. There’s no recruiting going on because there doesn’t need to be any. I’m getting a great education and playing football with my friends.

“Our families have made some money and come to Calabasas as a good place to live. I really enjoy living here.”

Clausen doesn’t apologize for Calabasas becoming a destination for football players. That was his intent in taking the head coaching job.

“Lots and lots of good players grow up in Calabasas, and almost all of them played elsewhere in the past decade,” he said. “There was a time when playing at Calabasas simply wasn’t an option for the better players. The smart move was to go elsewhere, especially a top private school.

“We’ve tried to change the culture, and make this a viable opportunity for all levels of players. This is a beautiful community and a school that offers a great education. It’s all the advantages of a top private school without the private school tuition. Why wouldn’t you want your kid to come here?

“This coaching staff includes guys who have played college football and in the NFL, and what we want to do is prepare players to get to the next level. That’s our priority. We want to help kids achieve their dreams.”

Transfers are also a two-lane highway, the coach said.

Chris Brooks and Mateen Johnson (Newbury Park) and Brian Hightower (IMG Academy) are among the top players who have left Calabasas in the past two years.

Elite quarterback Gebbia is the prime example of a program shifting gears in recent years. The CIF-SS’s all-time leading passer attended Oaks Christian Middle School, but decided to enroll at Calabasas High.

Smith, for one, likes that the tide has turned.

“Tristan is a great leader, and him coming here changed a lot of things in the program,” said Smith. “I decided to come back and I’m so glad I did. I’m playing on a great team for my home school.”

Clausen, meanwhile, remains as unassuming as a monk.

He takes no salary for his coaching duties. Clausen is a broker for Flintridge Insurance in Westlake Village, a family business started by his father, and holds no ambition of taking his coaching skills to a Mater Dei, St. John Bosco, et al.

“I’ve got a full-time business to run,” he said. “I’ve had my day as a player. Now I just enjoy watching the kids do well and succeed not just in football, but in life. I’m hoping that the lessons we’re trying to teach here will be applied in their lives.”

For more, visit the Ventura County Star

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