California School for the Deaf, Riverside football team looks to complete ‘journey of a lifetime’ – Press Enterprise
California School for the Deaf, Riverside football coach Keith Adams called it “a journey of a lifetime.”
Adams was describing the team’s recent trip to Santa Catalina Island to play Avalon High School in the semifinals of the CIF Southern Section 8-man football playoffs. But Adams also could have been summing up the entire season.
The Cubs have made history this season, becoming the first team in the school’s 67-year history to advance to a section championship game. CSDR looks to cap a undefeated season when it hosts Faith Baptist of Canoga Park on Saturday at 5 p.m.
The team has been the subject of stories from local and national media outlets over the past few weeks.
“It gives me the chills,” Adams said through a sign language interpreter. “We have never had an experience quite like this. … And we are basking in the glory and the honor of being here. We, the little team, have finally made it.”
Adams and his players hope the recent attention will bring more awareness to the accomplishments of deaf athletes everywhere.
“We want to let everyone know we can play football and play it very well,” junior quarterback and linebacker Trevin Adams said through an interpreter. “OK, were are deaf, but that doesn’t matter when we are on the field. We have shown we are just as good and even better than many of the hearing teams we have played.”
A long time coming
CSDR fielded its first varsity football team in 1956. There have been a handful of successful moments over the years. Under the leadership of coach Pete Lanzi, the program had five winning seasons between 1965 and 1970. Jerry Moore made such an impression in 1965 that he was selected as the Riverside County Player of the Year and also was chosen a CIF Southern Section Player of the Year, the only deaf player to earn those honors. The Cubs won the first league championships in program history in 2004 and 2005.
But postseason success long eluded the program. CSDR lost in the opening round in 1988, 1994, 1997, 2004, 2005 and 2009. The school, which educates deaf and hard-of-hearing students from 11 counties in Southern California, has seen enrollment decline over the years (the current high school enrollment is 165), which made it difficult to be competitive in traditional 11-man football games. In 2018, CSDR decided to make a switch to 8-man football, which is played by 104 schools throughout the state.
“We were at a point where we were playing schools five and six times our size and losing game after game. It became extremely frustrating,” Keith Adams said. “I was begging students to come out and play. Eight-man football just made more sense with our circumstances.”
CSDR finally got the chance to celebrate a postseason win in 2019, when it beat St. Michael’s Prep of Silverado.
The program had high expectations coming off that breakthrough campaign, but then the coronavirus pandemic hit. While most California teams played a shortened season this past spring, the Cubs were unable to take the field. CSDR houses many of its pupils from Sunday evening to Friday afternoon, so the school had to cancel athletics for the 2020-21 school year while students remained in distance learning.
The Cubs made up for lost time by putting together the most successful season by any team in school history.
“It all feels so crazy at this point, almost as if it is not real,” junior defensive lineman Christian Jimenez said through an interpreter. “I’ve seen it happen to other people, but to experience myself has been amazing.”
The players are getting used to the attention surrounding the team, which grows with each playoff victory.
“It feels like we are shining stars and superstars,” sophomore receiver and cornerback Jory Valencia said through an interpreter.
Valencia has added to his family’s long and proud history at CSDR. Jory’s grandfather Seymour Bernstein came to the school in 1958 and coached football, basketball and baseball for several years in addition to teaching physical education. His grandmother Holly Bernstein also was a cheerleading coach at the school. Jory’s parents, Jeremias and Scarlett, both attended CSDR and excelled in sports, as did his older brother Noah and his uncles Joshua Valencia, Jonathan Valencia, Steve-Valencia-Biskupiak and Ethan Bernstein.
Scarlett Valencia, CSDR’s elementary school principal, is excited to see Jory be a part of school history.
“We are all proud of Jory and his stellar season,” Scarlett Valencia wrote during a Twitter conversation. “He is the nation’s interceptions leader, which is a tremendous accomplishment. … We’re also very proud for the Cubs football team. We’ve watched so many of these boys grow up since they were toddlers, and to watch them have such a memorable season is just amazing.”
Keith Adams always had the goal of turning the CSDR football program into a title contender. And that it finally happened in a year where his sons (Trevin and freshman Kaden) are on the team makes it even more special.
“I never coached both sons on a football team before, so this is a special bond for us,” he wrote in an email.
‘Like going to another world’
Last week, the CSDR football team made the unique journey to Santa Catalina Island to play its semifinal game against Avalon High School. It was a long day for the Cubs. The team left school around 9 a.m. to catch the 12:15 p.m. ferry from Long Beach to Avalon. A handful of players took naps on the lobby’s floor before boarding the ferry. The Cubs celebrated a 62-51 win, and then made a dash to catch the last ferry back to the mainland at 8:30 p.m.
“It was an amazing experience for everyone,” Keith Adams said. “Getting on a boat for a game felt like going to another world. I had never been there before. My wife enjoyed the trip to Catalina very much, so now were are thinking about taking a family vacation there sometime in future.”
More than 100 family members and supporters also made the trip to the island to cheer on the Cubs.
“They came out and invaded the island,” Jimenez said. “It was amazing to see a sea of red cheering for us.”
The team’s success has created plenty of excitement on campus. The players were surprised with a spirit parade the day before the game, and the elementary school students all made banners that were placed on the fence during the game.
“Jory has cousins in elementary and they’re just over the moon,” Scarlett Valencia said. “It’s such an important experience to teach the kids all about school spirit and the results of working hard toward goals.”
One final step
The players have thoroughly enjoyed this storybook season, but there still is one final chapter to be written.
CSDR is facing a formidable opponent in Faith Baptist, which is making its 18th appearance in a section final.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, one many teams never got the chance to experience.” Keith Adams said. “I have watched many of the kids grow up, and they have earned their opportunity through hard work and discipline.
“I hope that our story has inspired other deaf programs in the 50 states. We are extremely proud and honored to be representing our community, and hopefully we can go out there, play well and bring home that championship.”