FULLERTON A small group of Sunny Hills players stayed after practice this week to toss the football around and joke with each other until darkness nearly covered their field.
The players seemed to soak up each precious minute, recognizing the time and place were indeed special.
Sunny Hills’ once-struggling football program actually held practices this week as a reigning CIF-SS champion.
“Nothing better than this,” senior quarterback and captain Luke Duxbury said.
Sunny Hills (12-2) will load into a bus Saturday morning and head north for a showdown in the CIF State SoCal Division 3-A regionals at Bakersfield Christian (10-3) at 6 p.m.
It will be a remarkable road trip, full of hip hop music on the bus and another football clash, for a school that started the 2019 playoffs seeking its first postseason victory of any kind since 1996.
It will be a remarkable trip for a program once dubbed as a “hard” school to win at.
So how have the Lancers become winners? One ingredient fifth-year coach Pete Karavedas pointed to this week was Sunny Hills’ success attracting its neighborhood kids from Parks Junior High.
And sure enough, those were the kids on the field enjoying themselves in the near darkness this week.
Duxbury (6-1,m 175) and fellow star senior Wilson Cal (6-1, 190) were classmates at Parks Junior High.
Rising junior linebacker Carson Irons (6-0, 190) also attended Parks along with junior tight end/outside linebacker Noah Brown (6-0, 210) and Arnold Beltran.
And the list goes on.
“Pretty much everybody, or (they attended) Fisler,” Duxbury explained.
In years past as the Lancers struggled, the top athletes from Parks landed at other schools such as Troy or Fullerton.
Sunny Hills has worked hard to win them back with activities such as youth camps but they still needed standouts such as Duxbury and Cal to take a leap of faith.
They were Pop Warner teammates with the Fullerton Titans and both decided to attend Sunny Hills in 2016 despite the school not having a winning season since 2008.
“I was going to follow him where ever he went and he was following me where ever I went,” Duxbury said of Cal, who plays wide receiver and defensive back. “We knew if we both went to the same school, we could do some damage.”
Duxbury was a ball boy at Fullerton High as an eighth grader but saw the Lancers making progress on and off the field.
In the fall of 2015, in Karavedas’ first season, the Lancers beat Fullerton in Week 10 34-27 and made the playoffs as an at-large entry.
“They had coaches who put their players in position to make plays,” Duxbury recalled at the time. “We figured this would be our best opportunity to win a title.”
The Lancers did just last weekend in Santa Barbara, defeating the Dons 24-21 in the CIF-SS Division 8 final after a late interception by Cal.
Sunny Hills knows its not on the level of Freeway League rival La Habra but they’re defending their local turf. The Lancers have swept Fullerton and Troy the past two seasons.
They’re also changing the reputation of Sunny Hills football.
“This means so much to us because it breaks the stereotype, ‘Oh, Sunny Hills has been so garbage at football for the past 20 years,’ ” Duxbury said.
And the Lancers aren’t done. Their roster is a diverse mix of ethnic groups and they’ve already developed a position group to watch next year: “LBU”. Sunny Hills starts four junior linebackers in Irons, Kevin Hu, Brown and Vince Silva.
And there’s the opportunity on Saturday in Bakersfield to keep the magical run alive. Imagine, Sunny Hills as a California state champion?
“It’s a good feeling when there’s years of hard work behind (this),” Duxbury said. “We’ve been working all offseason, pretty much our whole lives to get to this moment.”
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