By Jeremy Balan
The Galileo Academy football team had one of the youngest groups in the Academic Athletic Association in 2011 and in several moments last season, that inexperience was glaringly evident.
With 20 players from last season’s 31-man varsity roster being underclassmen, including 12 sophomores, the Lions missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008, and in the roller-coaster year, the lows were stunningly low.
The first low was a 55-14 home loss to Berean Christian that exposed a weak offensive line. Then came a 66-6 loss to Mission, a 53-19 loss to Balboa and a 62-14 loss to Washington.
When things went bad, the young Lions didn’t know how to stop the bleeding.
But now those sophomores, many of which started at key positions last season, have a year of varsity experience under their belts.
“They’re growing, and not just physically,” said Galileo coach Mark Huynh. “As a coach, what’s encouraging is seeing them grow mentally and emotionally.”
The two places where improvement was greatly needed last season — defense and the offensive line — are still question marks, but the Lions have one of the most talented collection of offensive skill-position players in the league, and maybe the best all-around player.
One of those sophomores who is now a junior, running back Ronzel Fox, led the Lions in rushing yards (903 on just 121 carries) and touchdowns (8), added 377 receiving yards and three more touchdowns (good for second on the team) and led the team in tackles (108) as a linebacker.
“He’s the difference between playoffs and no playoffs,” Huynh said. “If he wasn’t here, it would be hard for sure.”
The bruising but soft-spoken tailback’s stats were impressive, but watching him on plays where he doesn’t have the ball speaks more to his attitude toward the game. Fox almost never leaves the field, and even when he’s blocking on an interception or on special teams, odds are, an opposing player will hit the turf.
“I like to give the hits, instead of taking them,” Fox said. “It’s the player I am and it’s how I was brought up. I was always the youngest, playing with all the older kids.”
The Lions will undoubtedly rely heavily on Fox again in 2012, but the key to getting back into the playoffs will be taking some of the load off his shoulders.
The defense simply has to get better. The Lions allowed 39 points per game in the AAA last season and often struggled to make tackles with defenders in their grasp.
“At the Washington game last year, I took a snapshot of the scoreboard as a reminder,” Huynh said. “I mean, they scored over 60 points. This is high school football. Nobody should be scoring 60 points. The goal is to not ever let anybody do that again. The kids might have short memories, but I don’t.”
Converted wide receiver Dontell Jackson, who led the Lions in receptions (31), receiving yards (455) and receiving touchdowns (7), also needs to help Fox out in the running game.
Galileo will abandon the throw-first spread offense it employed last season to run a pro-style set with Fox and Jackson both in the backfield.
Jackson, who calls the duo a “smash-and-dash” combo, also looks like an entirely different person from a year ago. The junior has bulked up and, according to Huynh, has improved speed.
“Dontell is closing the gap,” Huyhn said. “He’s a good running back too and is our best pure runner.”
All of their offensive weapons, however, will be negated if the offensive line can’t improve.
Nelson, despite being a human piñata for much of the 2011 season, still threw for 15 touchdowns and 1,518 yards, and even though he showed remarkable toughness throughout the season, his slender frame will again be tested if he’s subjected to the pounding he took a year ago.
The Lions will start three returning seniors on the offensive line, but Nelson and Huynh were far from optimistic when talking about the big men up front.
“When I get hit, I gotta just keep getting up,” Nelson said. “I try not to let it show it phases me, to send a message to our team and the other team that we’re not gonna die just because someone is getting hit.”
2012 Schedule – AAA games in bold
Week 0: Fri. 8/31 – @ Mills (Millbrae), 3 p.m.
Week 1: Sat. 9/8 – vs. Gonzales, 2 p.m.
Week 2: Fri. 9/14 – @ De Anza (Richmond), 7 p.m.
Week 3: Sat. 9/22 – vs. Kennedy (Richmond), 1:30 p.m.
Week 4: (Bye)
Week 5: Fri. 10/5 – vs. Mission, 3 p.m.
Week 6: Sat. 10/13 – @ Lincoln, 2 p.m.
Week 7: Fri. 10/19 – @ Washington, 3 p.m.
Week 8: Thu. 10/25 – vs. Marshall @ SOTA, 2 p.m.
Week 9: Fri. 11/2 – vs. Lowell, 3 p.m.
Week 10: Fri. 11/9 – vs. Balboa, 2 p.m.