Prep Impressions: Sept. 2, 2016

With few exceptions, defending high school league, section, state, et al champions usually experience a dip the following season.

Typically, a prep title-winning team is filled with a core of grizzled seniors who start and play the majority of the minutes.

So why does Riverside Notre Dame’s football team seem as though it has gotten better?

Is it the talent? Is it the coaching? Is it all that combined with the parochial environment?

The Titans, who went 14-0 last season en route to the now-defunct CIF-Southern Section Northwest Division championship, enter this season with a target on their backs in Division 9.

“We’re real young this year. We have a lot of new guys in spots,” Notre Dame head coach Derrick Johnson said. “We have some talented guys and I want to showcase their skill sets against some bigger programs.”

Losing LBs Wesley Smith and Jaden Gardner to graduation would have sent reverberations through most small programs like Norte Dame’s, but the Titans have reloaded on defense with Dylan Petti and Ryan Simpson.

“Our defense was great last year. We had some great people,” Simpson said. “We just have to work hard, work hard in practice and study more because (last year’s team) was probably more talented than us.”

Johnson has beefed up the team’s schedule and isn’t scared to take a loss here or there if it means learning lessons along the way. Last season the Titans outscored nonleague opponents 230-33 before the start of Ambassador League play. This year, the team is playing Santa Margarita Tesoro (D1) in its final nonleague game.

“It’s a learning curve for us,” Johnson said. “I feel like we got out-coached and out-played in the state regional game (a 21-14 loss to Chula Vista Mater Dei Catholic), and so we have to play some games, maybe take a loss or two to understand and find our identity, and just to see how we can handle adversity.”

Starting quarterback Niles Harrell and starting tailback Ian Zamudio are back for their senior seasons, adding fuel to the team’s competitive flame.

“All we can do is progress,” Zamudio said. “I think we can take what we did last year a build upon it. This year I think we can do it again and I’m excited for it.”

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