There is a small, but dedicated group of football players toiling at a nondescript local field preparing for the upcoming season.
The athletes have been working hard and many are learning the game for the first time. Although they realize they are likely in for a tough season, they are determined to succeed and put Bellarmine-Jefferson High on the road to recovery as a program.
"The guys have been working hard and they have shown a tremendous dedication since we started," said Fred Martinez, who is Bell-Jeff's fourth football coach in as many years. "There are guys who have never played tackle football and they maybe have only played something like flag. But they have been very positive, they have been learning and they are willing to put in the hard work."
Just hired in June, Martinez has been working diligently to put together a team for the 2014 season. After the decision was made to cancel a portion of their season in 2013, this season's Guards will play a modified schedule on the junior varsity level.
In a bit of a twist, Bell-Jeff will open the season Sept. 13 with a Santa Fe League game against St. Monica at Santa Monica College.
"I think going the JV route is what's best for the players and for the program," said Martinez, who has between 14-15 players out for the team and is hoping that number will grow with a few athletes still in limbo about joining the squad. "The speed and the skill level just increases when you go up to the varsity level, so now, with what we have, this is the best situation for us.
"We do start out our season with a league game, but that's OK. But we don't start until Sept. 13 so that will give us some time to ease into the season. Hopefully we'll be ready by then."
The Guards will also play league contests against St. Anthony (Sept.18), Mary Star (Oct. 3) and St. Genevieve (Oct. 30) as well as nonleague games against Campbell Hall (Oct. 17), Flintridge Prep (Oct. 25) and St. Margaret's (Nov. 8) to finish up the season.
Martinez, who also serves at the school's athletic director, took over for former coach Lance Fauria, whose contract wasn't renewed following a year as the school's football coach and athletic director. The football program experienced its share of problems during the 2013 season. After being plagued by low numbers and injuries that severely depleted the Guards in all of their games, Bell-Jeff canceled its season in mid-October, forfeiting its remaining three games.
The Guards finished the year at 0-7 with four forfeit losses and three on the field. In the three games Bell-Jeff did play, the Guards suffered mounting injuries to an already slim squad. All three games were played with a running clock in the second half.
One of the players who experienced the troubles and the struggles within the program last season was AJ Navarro. The senior said it was crushing for the athletes when the season had to be canceled.
"When the season was cut short last year it was really discouraging for all of us," said Navarro, who will be a linebacker and running back for the Guards. "You really didn't want to play the next year after that.
"But this season there are a lot of kids who want to be out here and they want to play and that makes me want to play hard for them as well."
With no real on-campus training facility, the Guards have been not been practicing at Brace Canyon Park, where they have trained for years. Instead they are at tiny Palm Park, which is essentially a softball field that has no goal posts, yard markers or equipment like blocking sleds.
"Right now, we are just focusing mainly on the fundamentals. We really don't need to be doing a lot of hitting at this point," Martinez said. "It's important the kids learn the proper techniques and the right way to do things.
"We're not rebuilding, we're restarting the program. We want to have a fundamental foundation so we can have sustainability for the future. If we are going to grow this program, we have to do it the right way. This is the way it really needs to be done. We know about the past and what happened with this program last year. We have to learn from those experiences from the past so we can move forward."
Because of the small numbers, most of the Guards players will be seeing time on offense and defense.
Along with Navarro, some of the players who Martinez will rely on to help lead Bell-Jeff are senior quarterback/wide receiver/defensive back John Anulat, sophomore lineman Jeffrey Cauesus, freshman lineman Noah Gadoy, freshman linebacker/lineman Micah Gonzalez and freshman lineman David Hernandez.
"We have a lot of guys who are committed to this team," Anulat said. "I know the season will probably be tough at first, but I know we'll get better and we'll try as hard as we can to be successful."
Follow Jeff Tully on Twitter: @jefftsports.