Matthew Lickona 7 a.m., April 24
Patriots have league title, playoff aspirations after 5-0 start
SAN CARLOS – Football is a complex game, but for Patrick Henry simplicity has equaled success this season. The Patriots are 5-0 after winning five games total in the last three years, due in large part to a smaller coaching staff and basic approach on both sides of the ball.
“We decided that we were going to do some things differently – change our offense, change our defense and really focus on fundamentals,” said Patrick Henry head coach Mike Martinez. “We just wanted to come out and try to play defense and offense, and just do a few things right.”
Patrick Henry finished 3-7 last year, a third-straight losing season following a pair of one-win campaigns. After 2011, the Patriots decided to scale back the numbers within their coaching staff.
“We thinned out the ranks and went with a little more of a skeleton crew, and the coaches are doing a great job – I’ve got great guys I can depend on,” Martinez said.
Decisive home wins over San Ysidro and Hilltop to kick off the season sparked Patrick Henry to its undefeated start – and helped the Patriots earn the support of their classmates. It has been so long since Patrick Henry won its first five games in a season that Martinez – an alum that lives in the nearby community – couldn’t recall such an impressive start.
“It means a lot to the school and the student body,” said Patriots senior quarterback James McCormick. “The crowds get bigger and bigger, and our spirits keep getting higher and higher. It builds more momentum for the next game when we keep winning.”
On the field, Patrick Henry excels when its opponents have the ball. The switch to a 3-3-5 defense before the season is a big part of the team’s success, as the Patriots shut out their first two opponents and are allowing less than a touchdown per game.
“Our defense is pretty good. From our line to our linebackers to our cornerbacks to our safeties, everybody contributes to our success,” said Patrick Henry senior lineman Gabe Ng. “We’re basically just an athletic defense – not big, but we get the job done.”
For local football fans, Patrick Henry’s defense may look familiar – it’s the same run by San Diego State. And while the Aztecs are allowing 35.4 points per game, the Patriots are stifling opponents with speed and an athletic secondary featuring a trio of dynamic safeties – senior Arturo Najera, senior Travonne Pollard and junior Jabril Clewis.
“We play an attack-style defense that has a lot of man-to-man coverage – we play games up front and try to deliver a lot of pressure,” Martinez said. “It’s dicey sometimes and it’s risky, but right now we have the kids that can do it.”
Offensively, Patrick Henry runs a mix of plays out of its base offense that combines veer and triple option. The Patriots took a page out of the program’s past playbook by opting for a run-heavy foundation on offense.
“We have a good quarterback who runs well and is tough kid, so we decided we were going to run the veer and the triple option,” Martinez said. “My offensive coordinator and I are both Henry grads, and we were here in the 70s and 80s – that’s what we grew up running and we had some good years.”
Though a veer offense typically doesn’t feature much passing, Patrick Henry doesn’t mind throwing the ball. Clewis, senior Jesus Cruz and junior Austin Hester are speedy targets for McCormick, a three-year starter who labored through two losing seasons before this year’s turnaround.
“Going through that is frustrating, and being able to finally succeed makes it all worth it,” McCormick said. “We were doing it for a reason, and it made us better and more prepared. We’ve been through the worst, and now it’s our time.”
Patrick Henry rolled to victories in its first three games, but the last two weren’t as one-sided. The Patriots rallied for narrow wins in the past two weeks to stat undefeated – a 17-14 win over Mission Bay on Sept. 21 and a 9-6 win in overtime at Monte Vista on Sept. 28.
“They were come-from-behind wins, which is good – we’ve never been able to do that here,” Martinez said. “The kids are finding a way to win.”
Patrick Henry hosts Serra (3-2) in its City League opener on Friday night. Along with fellow unbeaten Hoover, the Patriots are favorites for a league title after moving from the competitive Eastern League – and an undefeated start has the team aiming for a banner.
“That would mean a lot,” Ng said. “It’s a crazy thing and I’m pretty sure the whole school would erupt if we could win league and go to playoffs.”
After a 5-0 start, Patrick Henry is halfway to a perfect regular season and closing in on its first winning season since 2008. Along the way, the Patriots have created a positive outlook for a program that hasn’t had many sources of optimism in recent seasons.
“The kids think they can go 10-0, and I tell them, ‘You’re not ready to go 10-0, you’re not good enough to go 10-0 and you’re not disciplined enough to go 10-0 yet, but if you think you can do it prove me wrong,’” Martinez said.
So far, Patrick Henry has had no issues with that.
Pictured: Patrick Henry head coach Mike Martinez