In years past, stopping La Quinta’s potent offense wasn’t typically a complicated task. It’s just that most teams couldn’t figure out how to tackle their running back tearing out of the backfield with the ball play after play after play.
During the fall 2014 season, any coach knew lightning-fast back Chris “Turbo” Toribio was going to get the ball almost every play, yet he still racked up more than 3,000 yards and nearly 50 touchdowns. Coach Dan Armstrong’s traditional Blackhawk squads have nearly all prided themselves upon strong, experienced linemen in the trenches blocking for a back who’s going to run it down your throat continuously.
But in perhaps Armstrong’s last season as head coach, the Blackhawks have one of the most dynamic offensive squads he’s ever led. No doubt, Armstrong won’t shy away from getting Benji Cordova toward or above 2,000 rushing yards, but opponents will now have to account for two wide receiver-quarterback combo players that expands the Blackhawks’ options immensely.
“We’ve got a lot of weapons, but we’ve just got to be smart in how we use them,” Armstrong said. “That’s going to be the deal this year, keeping people happy and making sure they all get their touches. … This team, skill-wise, we don’t have Jeff Webb, but I tell you what, we’ve got guys better than we’ve had in the last three or four years.”
The scary part of that? The Blackhawks made it all the way to the CIF SS Eastern Division semifinals each of the past two seasons. Even with the switch in the playoff system, all indications point toward a very versatile, dangerous team come postseason time. The only other time Armstrong’s teams have lost in the semis two years in a row, in 1998 and 1999, the Blackhawks followed it up with two consecutive CIF titles in 2000 and 2001.
As of now, Armstrong plans on using senior Andrew Garcia as more of a traditional offset-I formation quarterback, where he’ll often hand off to Cordova, along with his backups Derrick Kennedy, Ricky Vargas and Andres Sanchez. Still, this is no traditional La Quinta team. With senior Justin Anderson out wide, opponents will have to honor the pass with Garcia’s proven arm and Anderson’s breakneck speed. Sometimes he may get double-teamed, opening the floodgates for the run game. When he isn’t, he could score every play.
To switch things up, Anderson, who has a plenty good arm, too, will stand under center, too, posing as a threat to handoff to bruising Cordova, take off and run or throw to Garcia, who has arguably the best hands in the valley, according to his coach.
With more versatile weapons than any team in the valley can boast, defenses will have to pick their poison and hope they’re right.
Below the surface, though, this Blackhawk squad has something special that has Armstrong even more impressed. This team, he said has had one of the most productive, cohesive offseasons of any he’s coached. Once, in a team push press competition, one player set the record with 35 reps and then left. When he got a phone call saying a teammate had hit 36, he turned back around and pounded out another rep.
It’s a tenacity and fearlessness that Armstrong said his teams have been lacking, but this stacked senior class has plenty to play for in potentially their coach’s final time on the sidelines.
“We want to get the Flag back. We want to get the Gates Trophy back. We want to get the league title back,” Armstrong said. “We’ve got some unfinished business to take care of, and we’re definitely good enough for it. But if we’ll actually do it all, that remains to be seen.”
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Looking deeper at La Quinta
Coach: Dan Armstrong, 161-90-1 in 21 seasons
Last league title: 2014
2015 record: 6-7 (4-2 in DVL), lost in semifinals of CIF SS Eastern Division playoffs to Oak Hills, 33-21
Returning starters: seven on offense, eight on defense
Biggest personnel loss: The Blackhawks manage to return every single skill position player who touched the football, except for their starting quarterback who will certainly be missed. Although La Quinta had to play a large portion of the regular season without Avina due to injury, his experience, knowledge of the offense and the way his teammates seemed to rally around him will be hard to replicate.
Biggest question: Can La Quinta live up to their heavy expectations? Coach Dan Armstrong said his 2016 squad is the most talented he’s had in three or four years, and as of now, he plans to make this his last season as head coach. With Palm Springs and Palm Desert losing loads of talent, will La Quinta be able to take back their spot at the top of the DVL and make one last CIF championship run after two consecutive semifinal losses?
Breakout player: Because the Blackhawks still managed to make the playoffs and claw their way to the CIF semifinals, Michael Avina’s injury a year ago wasn’t all bad because it gave Andrew Garcia experience under center. Expect the senior to utilize and build upon that expertise as the Blackhawks’ traditional quarterback, but when La Quinta sets up in a more dynamic offensive formation with Justin Anderson taking snaps, Garcia can quickly become one of the best wide receivers in the valley.
Coach quote: “We’ve got a lot of weapons, but we’ve just got to be smart how we use them. That’s going to be the deal this year, keeping people happy and making sure they’re all getting their touches. … Skill-wise, we don’t have a ‘Jeff Webb’ but I tell you what, we’ve got guys better than we’ve had in the last three or four years.”
Projected record: 8-2 (6-0 in DVL)
Sept. 2…Villa Park
Sept. 9…Rancho Mirage
Sept. 16…at St. Bonaventure
Sept. 23…at Roosevelt
Sept. 30…at Palm Springs
Oct. 7…Xavier Prep
Oct. 13…Shadow Hills
Oct. 21…at Palm Desert
Oct. 27…at Indio
Nov. 4…Cathedral City