Says a rival coach of Jason Negro's St. John Bosco team: They dont have… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
Forget the fancy Xs and O's. The new football coach arrived with a simple message.
Surveying the roster he inherited, Jason Negro saw plenty of talented kids who could run around and make plays. But they lacked muscle, and he told them so.
"We had to challenge people," he recalls. "We had to be tougher."
It wasn't something the St. John Bosco players necessarily wanted to hear. And they weren't entirely prepared for Negro's grueling off-season workouts.
"Some of the guys — guys who had been here before — were used to taking a day or two off," center Elijah Zabludoff, who has been writing about his experiences this season for The Times' prep sports blog, recalled. "That wouldn't fly with this coach."
Just four years later, Negro has proved his get-tough attitude works, the Braves emerging from mediocrity to rank among the top teams in the nation.
On Saturday night, they will play what figures to be the biggest game in California in more than a decade, facing nationally ranked Concord De La Salle for the CIF Open Division championship at StubHub Center.
If St. John Bosco's turnaround seems quick from the outside, it doesn't feel that way to Negro.
"It hasn't been totally smooth sailing by any means," he said. "We've had to overcome some things."
The roots of this turnaround reach all the way back to the early 1990s, when Negro was the Braves' quarterback. After playing some junior college baseball and studying mathematics at Cal State Dominguez Hills, he began helping out with a local youth team and fell in love with coaching.
A short stint as an assistant at St. John Bosco in the late 1990s led to a job at Trabuco Hills High, where he was soon promoted and served as head coach for seven seasons.
In the spring of 2010, his alma mater brought him back to a place where his longtime knowledge of the program and community would work to his advantage.
"They've always had talent at the skill positions," Negro said of the Braves. "So me and my staff put together a plan."
The trick was getting kids to understand that lifting weights and running in the spring would pay off later.
"It's definitely hard, the season being so far away," said Jaleel Wadood, a star receiver-defensive back. "You have to believe."
The players describe Negro as a good salesman, tough but loving. Still, the team went 5-5 in his first season. It took another year for the changes to set in, the Braves reaching the quarterfinals in the 2011 playoffs.
"That's when things started to fall into place for us," Zabludoff said. "We thought, 'We can be that team, we can go to the CIF championship, we can go to state championship, we can compete with the best teams in the nation.'"
The Braves were building a program that combined speed along the edges with the necessary grunt work in the trenches. They also benefited from an influx of talent.
With nearby schools suffering through coaching changes and other turmoil, a number of top-notch athletes transferred in. Damien Mama came from Riverside North. Wadood, Chandler Leniu and Naijiel Hale arrived from Lakewood High.
"All three kids are very talented," said former Lakewood coach Thadd MacNeal, whose trio of stars transferred after he left for Carlsbad High. "I would say that their parents wanted to put them in the best situation possible … Bosco was a good choice at the time."
The valuable additions have given rise to grumbling about recruiting. Negro responds: "We've lost more kids than we've had come into the school."
Last fall, St. John Bosco looked like one of the best teams in the country, going undefeated through the regular season. But their ascendancy hit a bump when they lost, 13-10, to Long Beach Poly in the Pac-5 Division semifinal.
Negro made use of that disappointment to fuel even harder off-season workouts.
"We had some unfinished business," he said. "Starting in January, the kids did a great job of getting ready."
This season, the Braves have swept through the postseason without a hitch, rising to No. 1 in several national polls, ranking in the Top 5 in others.
The offensive line dominated Corona Centennial in a regional playoff game last week as sophomore running back Sean McGrew rushed for 367 yards and seven touchdowns in a 70-49 victory.
Justin Alumbaugh, the coach at De La Salle, was impressed watching the game on film.
"That offensive line is very physical," Alumbaugh said. "We're going to have to stop their runner, no doubt."
Both programs are built on strength at the line of scrimmage, where Saturday night's game probably will be decided. Alumbaugh must also worry about blocking Leniu and Wadood, who have combined for 369 tackles this season.
"They don't have any weaknesses," the coach said.
De La Salle enters the game with a No. 4 ranking in two polls and some potent history, having won 22 consecutive North Coast Section titles. The Spartans set a national record for winning 151 straight games from 1992-2003.
"We've been there before," Alumbaugh says of the championship. "I guess that gives us an advantage in some respect."
Experience might be the biggest limitation for St. John Bosco. Winning at this level still feels a little new to the Braves.
If nothing else, the players can think back a few years to when the new coach arrived with a master plan.
"The first day that Coach Negro came in, he said this was the school where he wanted to be," Zabludoff recalled. "He said, 'I know the athletes we have, I know we can be the best in the nation.'"