RIAN WHITEHEAD, STAFF
BY BRIAN WHITEHEAD/STAFF WRITER OCRegister
Empire League Football sage Mike Marrujo begins his 35th season at Valencia with 294 wins, trailing only Los Alamitos' John Barnes and Mission Viejo's Bob Johnson in the Cal-Hi Sports state record book. Valencia's averaged eight wins per year the past three seasons, meaning Marrujo should join Barnes and Johnson in the 300-win club sometime next month.
Mike Marrujo never stands still for more than a few seconds at a time.
It’s Tuesday afternoon, three days before Valencia High’s 2015 season opener, and the longtime football coach will not stop moving. One minute, he’s behind the secondary; the next, he’s near the line of scrimmage, clipboard in hand, eyes somehow fixed on 22 kids at one time. He’ll later throw fade routes to receivers in the end zone, simulate pre-snap motion during offensive drills and demonstrate correct blocking technique. Menial as his job seems at times, Marrujo could easily be mistaken for a first-year assistant; coaching legends just don’t lose sleep over field goal formations and agility drills. But if Marrujo’s learned anything over the years, it’s that no detail is too small to overlook. His fingerprints are all over Valencia’s football program as a result, just how he likes it. “I’ve been coaching my whole life,” he told OCVarsity’s Steve Fryer in 2013. “I love being out there.”
At this rate, Marrujo may never stop coaching. Now in his 35th year at Valencia, Orange County’s third-winningest active coach looks as young as ever, even with Ray Ban sunglasses older than his athletes and a whistle he’s been blowing since the Reagan administration. Never mind the year, to Marrujo, football never gets old. “I love Coach,” said returning running back Darren Sandoval, a senior and third-year letter winner. “He’s a great coach, the kind of coach that makes you want to try everything harder and harder.”
Marrujo doesn’t need a big game to appreciate the little things. Just last week, Valencia participated in a three-way scrimmage with Katella and El Modena, Sandoval breaking the first play 60-plus yards for six. When discussing the upcoming season Tuesday, Marrujo mentioned Sandoval’s long touchdown run first. “He’s a good kid,” the coach added. “He’ll play both ways for us this year. Added 20 pounds of muscle in the summer. Now he’s up to 180.”
Valencia last year won the program’s first Empire League championship in six full seasons. The 2014 Tigers later beat Northwood in the opening round of the CIF-SS Southwest Division playoffs, then fell in the quarterfinals to upstart Capistrano Valley. Marrujo owns 14 league championships (11 Orange, three Empire), but last won a CIF championship in 1992, having since appeared in only one title game (2005). Valencia’s been a perennial Orange County power for as long as anyone can remember, but what’ll it take for the 2015 Tigers to break through the program’s recent glass ceiling?
“Marrujo, man, he’s a great coach,” said returning letter winner Chach Ben-Yisrael, a third-year, two-way starter. “We’ll go far as long as we learn what he’s teaching us. He’s all about the game, wanting all of us to put it all on the line for each other. No excuses. “He knows how to run a team. We all look up to him.” Valencia’s roster is lean this year, the program graduating key upperclassmen in the spring who took with them valuable experience, production and postseason laurels. For the first time in three years, Marrujo no longer has the luxury of coaching a Pat Godoy, a Jake Watkins, a Nick Coghill, a Zach Sawtelle – kids three years in the making. But in Sandoval, Ben-Yisrael, Jacob Briggs and others, Marrujo has returning letter winners at key positions, kids led by previous senior classes.
“We lost a lot of players, a lot of good, strong players,” said Briggs, Valencia’s leading tackler last season and a returning first-team All-Empire League linebacker. “But we’re filling in, and we have the same coaches. If we listen to them, we’ll do well throughout the season.”
Few programs last year ran the football as well as Valencia. With Sandoval, Godoy and Will Van Dam averaging more than six yards a pop between them, Valencia’s 2,900 rushing yards ranked high on the county leader board. With Godoy and Van Dam gone, Sandoval will assume lead back duties this fall.
The senior isn’t big, but he’s built like a rock, and the kid can fly. Running behind an offensive line anchored by seniors Hayden Werbe, Warren Garten and Tyler Glosser, Sandoval and 2014 revelation, junior understudy Jahquon Speed should find plenty of running room at the line of scrimmage. “Every practice I’m working harder,” Sandoval said. “Every rep makes a difference.”
Succeeding Godoy under center is Tyler Switzer, a kid Marrujo spent much of last summer talking up as Valencia’s next great passer. Though a September leg injury curtailed his junior campaign, a clean bill of health has Switzer back in the system, orchestrating Marrujo’s offense in his first full season as a starter. He’ll find comfort early in Ben-Yisrael’s playmaking on the outside.
Valencia’s heir to Watkins at receiver, Ben-Yisrael has the tools to become a valuable offensive asset. Now three years in, he’s as comfortable with the ball in air as anyone. “We’re going to do what we usually do, and that’s play Tiger football,” he said. Defensively, Briggs will be Valencia’s thunder.
His 120 tackles last season led the team, and at season’s end, Empire coaches rewarded him with first-team all-league plaudits. Valencia’s defense last year ceded only 15 points per game, an average skewed slightly by the 36 points Tustin scored in defeat on Halloween night. With Briggs at linebacker and three returning ball hawks in the secondary, opponents will again struggle to score on Valencia. “If you play your position at 100 percent, good things will happen,” Briggs said. “If you slack just a little bit, your teammates will see that.”
Marrujo’s a man of precious few words.
He doesn’t grant many interviews, and at times it’s an adventure even reaching him. But once tracked down and engaged, the man’s a walking, talking encyclopedia. He’s easily forgotten more about football over the years than most coaches have even thought of, and that’s fine, the 2015 season, after all, is just another opportunity for him to soak in more knowledge.
All his success, and here he is on a Tuesday afternoon in September talking about the positional battle brewing between four possible starting guards. Don’t get him started on the left tackle he recently promoted to varsity, or on his kicker, Mason Paine. “We’ll be steady,” Marrujo said. “Different than last season, but we’re a playoff team. We’ll contend for a league title.” Valencia teams take on the personality of their coach.
Whether it’s the league it plays in, its remote location or its annual, perhaps vanilla, success, Valencia always flies underneath the radar this time of year. Then November rolls around and there the Tigers are, chasing another CIF championship. "I just hope that all of us, the coaches here, have influenced the kids that have played for us in a positive way," Marrujo told OCVarsity in 2012. "So when they look back on it, they learned some things that they take with them as they go into adulthood – how to be responsible, how to be men. I think that's really important. "That's why you have athletics in high school."