PLACENTIA, Calif. — The night before high school football teams throughout Southern California learned whether they made the playoffs or not, Zack LaMonda's wife smirked at him as he set his alarm clock.
Not even she could fathom why LaMonda intended to wake up early for the announcement when the team he coached seemed to have such faint hope of receiving a bid.
El Dorado High School did not register a single victory on the field this season, dropping all 10 games it played by an average of 26 points and only twice coming within two touchdowns of an opponent. The only reason the Golden Hawks did not formally finish the regular season with an 0-10 record was because a league foe used an ineligible player during their Oct. 29 matchup, turning a 49-14 El Dorado loss into a forfeit victory.
"When my wife saw me setting my alarm, she laughed at me and commended me on my optimism," LaMonda said. "I got up at 7:50 the next morning and left the bedroom. At 8:01, I came running back in screaming so loud that I think my wife thought the house was on fire."
The California Interscholastic Federation's controversial decision to award the Golden Hawks a playoff spot has breathed new life into their disappointing season yet has also made them a target for vitriol and backlash. Many players and coaches competing in the same 16-team playoff division as El Dorado find it unjust that an ostensibly winless team earned an at-large bid yet other programs with four or five victories apiece got snubbed.
Those teams can blame El Dorado's surprise inclusion on the rigidity of the CIF's formula for comparing at-large hopefuls head-to-head in each division. The CIF awards two points for playing a stronger schedule and one apiece for hailing from a stronger league, boasting a superior overall record and possessing a better record head-to-head or against common opponents. That formula favored the Golden Hawks over fellow at-large candidates because it emphasizes strength of schedule more than wins and losses. El Dorado gained three points for playing in their division's toughest league and scheduling teams that went a combined 56-44 this season yet only surrendered one point because of their inferior record.
Ocean View High School coach Luis Nunez, who piloted his program to a 5-5 record this season, received a flood of calls and texts on Sunday from players in disbelief at being left out of the playoffs in favor of El Dorado. Although Nunez hopes the situation inspires the CIF Football Advisory Committee to examine changing its at-large selection criteria after the season, he also blames El Dorado for pursuing an at-large playoff bid in the first place.
"You would hope that a coach who's 0-10 wouldn't even apply to make the playoffs," Nunez said. "It's really disheartening for our staff and our kids, especially our seniors. I preach that nothing in life is free. Everything is earned. How do you show up as a coach and tell your team, 'Hey guys, we haven't won a game but we're in the playoffs?' I'm sure even their kids are mind-boggled."
While LaMonda is sympathetic to the frustration of other teams, he views his decision to apply for an at-large bid differently. He says his players may not have won any games on the field, but they've earned the right to have their coach fight to extend their season by competing hard and persevering through adversity.
El Dorado was one of Orange County's top football teams less than a decade ago, but the opening of a fourth high school in its district drastically altered the landscape. Not only did El Dorado have a smaller population of students from which to pull talent, its highly respected head coach also left for the new school and many of the district's top players followed him there.
The program LaMonda took over in late April bore little resemblance to the one that captured section championships in 2006 and 2007. Two coaching changes in three years and six straight losing seasons had diminished interest to the point that only 13 seniors chose to play football this season. Those seniors were dedicated enough to participate in offseason weight lifting and conditioning sessions last winter even though El Dorado didn't have a head coach in place for nearly five months.
"I can't speak highly enough about my seniors with all the stuff they've gone through in their high school career," LaMonda said. "The 13 guys that have stuck with us show up every day and they don't complain. I've told these guys I will always remember them because they're my first senior class. I'll remember these guys for their resiliency, their passion, the fact that they're fighting even though the results aren't what they want them to be."
An instant turnaround was probably too much to expect from LaMonda's debut season, but there have been glimpses of progress amid the losses. El Dorado led its season opener against Troy by two points going into the fourth quarter and held a fourth-quarter lead at Esperanza last month as well. And in what they thought would be their final game of the season last Friday night, the Golden Hawks pushed playoff-bound El Modena deep into the fourth quarter before falling 19-13.
The mood among El Dorado's seniors was grim after that loss because they believed their last chance to experience a victory had slipped through their fingers. LaMonda told the Golden Hawks in the locker room that he had applied for an at-large playoff berth and that their strength of schedule gave them a slim chance, but most players didn't take him seriously because they thought a team with a single win by forfeit couldn't possibly reach the postseason.
Senior offensive lineman Bryson Smith learned El Dorado made the playoffs when his mom roused him from bed on Sunday morning to give him the good news. Fellow senior co-captain Aaron Richardson learned 90 minutes later when he awoke to a text message from LaMonda.
"I was a little sleepy, but when I saw the text, my eyes got wide open," Richardson said. "I was like, 'Yeah, we made it! No way!' I was pretty pumped. I started texting all the guys, and no one could believe it."
While the El Dorado players are grateful to LaMonda for not giving up on them and eager to experience the playoffs for the first time, the criticism they've experienced the past two days has been frustrating. They've read newspaper stories questioning if the playoff system is broken and message board and social media posts suggesting they're going to lose their opening-round playoff game against top-seeded Garden Grove by six or seven touchdowns.
"We all have that chip on our shoulder. We all want to prove everyone wrong," Smith said. "I know they think we're a pushover team because of our record. I've seen it on Twitter that everyone thinks we're going to have a hard time. I've already started watching film, and I'm not scared whatsoever. I'm looking forward to Friday night."
Smith's attitude exemplifies why LaMonda felt he'd be letting down his senior class if he didn't pursue an at-large bid and exhaust every option to give them another game.
One of LaMonda's favorite expressions is that the scoreboard is a liar. He says it whenever a talented team wins despite a sloppy, penalty-filled performance or a lesser team loses despite playing to the best of its ability.
Seldom in LaMonda's coaching career has the scoreboard lied more often than this season. El Dorado may be winless on the field this season but the Golden Hawks have shown ample perseverance and character.
"Whether we win or lose on Friday, the message I hope that I've taught these kids is to never give up," LaMonda said. "I believe in these kids, and that's why I decided to keep fighting for them."
- - - - - - -