Previewing the Top 50 high school football teams in California: No. 19 Grace Brethren Lancers (Simi Valley)

SBLive California is previewing the Top 50 high school football teams in the state ahead of the 2020-2021 season. Even with the season on hold, we will continue to highlight the best teams, players and coaches in California. Here’s an inside look at the Grace Brethren Lancers of the CIF Southern Section, the No. 19 team in our countdown.

MORE: PRESEASON TOP 50 PREVIEWS

GRACE BRETHREN TEAM PAGE | 2021 FOOTBALL SCHEDULE

GRACE BRETHREN HEAD COACH

Josh Henderson, 12th season

2019 AT A GLANCE

  • 12-2 record
  • 4-0 in Camino League (1st)
  • Southern Section Division 3 runner up
  • After one-score playoff wins over Westlake, Lawndale and La Habra, Grace Brethren lost in the title game 56-28 to Corona del Mar

ALL-SOUTHERN SECTION DEPARTURES

  • Nate Bennett – WR (Portland State)
  • Soane Toia – DL (San Jose State)
  • Jay Toia – DL (USC spring enrollee)
  • Tiafau Taiva – OL
  • Cesar Perez – OL/DL

2021 SCHEDULE

  • Jan 8, 2021 @ Orange Lutheran – 7:00PM – Non League
  • Jan. 22, 2021 vs. Oak Hills – 7:00PM – Non League
  • Jan. 29, 2021 @ Upland – 7:00PM – Non League
  • Feb. 5, 2021 vs. Narbonne – 7:00PM – Non League
  • Feb 19, 2021 @ Sierra Canyon – 7:00PM – Non League
  • Feb 26, 2021 vs. Oaks Christian – 7:00PM – League
  • Mar 5, 2021 @ Westlake – 7:00PM – League
  • Mar 12, 2021 vs. Calabasas – 7:00PM – League

RETURNING STARTERS

  • 4 on offense
  • 5 on defense

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Mikey Zele (Senior-QB) (6-0, 180)

Offer sheet: Air Force

Coach Henderson: “Mikey’s put on a lot of weight since last year. He’s got more victories than probably any quarterback in the state. He’s a true winner. I think he’s one of the more underrated quarterbacks in the state. I really want him to be able to play his senior year because people have only seen glimpses of his athletic potential, but they have seen his warrior spirit, courage and play-making ability. We’re really excited about Mikey.”

2019 stats: Completed 112 of 205 passes for 1,998 yards and 18 touchdowns. Threw three interceptions. Rushed for 531 yards and two touchdowns. 39-7 as a varsity starter.

Julien Stokes (Senior-RB) (5-8, 170)

Offer sheet: Air Force, Columbia, Penn, San Diego

Coach Henderson: “Julien is an athlete, a gentleman and a scholar. He’s a great athlete that fits the Ivy League mold. He’s a pleasure to coach and he has a wonderful presence about himself. He’s the guy that our team is privileged to have not only because of his talent, but because of what he brings to the team off the field. He’s a very special kid.”

2019 stats: Rushed 125 times for 1,375 yards and 18 touchdowns. Caught 16 passes for 236 yards and three touchdowns. Made 32 tackles and intercepted a pass.

Isaac Garcia (Senior-LB) (6-1, 220)

Coach Henderson: “Isaac is a coach’s dream. He’s a three year starter for us who made a transition from safety to linebacker. He loves the weight room and was the defensive MVP of our league last year. He always wants to get better. He’s a very aggressive and intelligent kid, but what sets him apart is his drive. It’s tremendous. He’s benching 365 pounds in high school. He’s talented, but it’s all self-made.”

2019 stats: 91 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, four sacks, two interceptions, a fumble recovery, two defensive TDs

Carson Cook (Senior-LB/OL) (5-11, 225)

Coach Henderson: “We feel like our linebacking corps is the heartbeat of our team and Carson is a big part of that. He is a real team player who is also benching 365 pounds. Carson is as good as any defensive player on our team. Last year he didn’t start at linebacker because we needed him on the offensive line and at fullback. He slotted in at linebacker, which is his position of preference, but played on offense with pride. Not once did he come to us and ask about linebacker even though we knew that was his passion. He’s a guy whose gone all in for the team. He’ll have his opportunity this year.”

2019 states: 19 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, a fumble recovery

Cooper Robertson (Senior-LB) (5-11, 205)

Coach Henderson: “Cooper’s brother is at Iowa State and was a big-time standout for us. Cooper is a tremendous talent. He started at outside linebacker for us last year and led us in tackles. He has a tremendous energy and nose for the football. He’s gotten bigger, faster and stronger this offseason. Cooper is a great player who represents our brand well.”

2019 stats: Made 119 tackles, six for loss, 1.5 sacks. Two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble.

Dez Diles (Senior-LB) (5-10, 200)

Coach Henderson: “Dez is our defensive coordinator’s son. He started for us last year at linebacker. He’s a very physical player who can step up and do a great job on pass rush. He’s a gentleman too. The four linebackers that I’ve mentioned represent our brand of football very well. They’re very respectful young men who do well in school. They’re young men you’d be glad if your daughter brought them home to meet your family. You can trust these guys.”

2019 stats: Made 84 tackles, 12 for loss. Had two interceptions and a forced fumble.

Luke Stuart (Senior-WR/DB) (6-0, 175)

Coach Henderson: “The stat sheet doesn’t show exactly how good Luke is for us. He’s grown up a ton and has put on a lot of weight. He’s a kid to keep an eye on. He’ll play some running back this year too for us in addition to the receiver and defensive back spots.”

2019 stats: Made 9 catches for 124 yards. Made 56 tackles and had an interception.

IMPACT TRANSFERS

  • Christian Cojulun — 2021 LB/WR/DB/K (Agoura)
  • Losini Maka — 2021 OL (Narbonne)
  • Da’Marrie Smith — 2022 WR/DB (Reseda)
  • Kaiki Akana — 2023 OL/DL (Royal)
  • Jordan Cardillo — 2023 DB (Simi Valley)

WHO TRANSFERRED OUT?

  • No one, but Jay Toia, a defensive lineman, graduated from Grace Brethren early to enroll at USC. “Losing Toia is the equivalent of losing four men for us, four warriors,” Henderson said. “In my 22 years of coaching, I’ve never coached a Jay Toia before. He’ll be playing this game at the highest level, I really believe that.”

HOW COVID-19 HAS AFFECTED GRACE BRETHREN FOOTBALL

COVID-19 has affected every high school football team differently. Coach Henderson shares how COVID-19 has impacted Grace Brethren football over the past few months:

“This has been very hard on young people in general in terms of mental health. Our school has done an excellent job of handling this crisis, but it’s still a tremendous stress on these young people. I give our young men, as a group, an ‘A.’ Our goal when this started was to lead through the storm and as a Christian program, we knew that storms come and go, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy.”

“Some of our guys have definitely had some tough trials during this time. Academically, this has been tough as well. The rigors of a private school online is very challenging. Our kids have had expectations of having a Homecoming game, their first day of school as a senior or a freshman, and it just hasn’t happened. There’s a lack of social interaction so I think there is a lot of disappointment out there.

“We’re really trying to teach our kids self-management to help them stay on the right path. Overall, it’s been quite challenging.”

BEST-CASE SCENARIO FOR GRACE BRETHREN

Henderson and co. are ready to take on the challenge of the Marmonte League this season.

“We’re very excited about being in the Marmonte League, although we’re not exactly sure what football is going to look like,” Henderson said. “I do believe football is going to happen, but there’s a lot of talk about it happening within counties.”

Even if league play is limited, look out for Grace Brethren to be in every game they play in 2021. Henderson’s team has a strong senior class led by a great QB/RB tandem in Mikey Zele and Julien Stokes. The Lancers have had an incredible rise from being a competitive team in the lower divisions of the Southern Section to becoming one of the state’s best squads.

In a normal year, Grace Brethren would be in the hunt for a Southern Section championship.

MOST REALISTIC SCENARIO

If football is played, Grace Brethren will most likely play exclusively against teams in Ventura County. The Lancers are the best team in the County, so expect them to win a lot of games.

COACH SAID

“We’ve had such a rise and I think this group of seniors has so many contributors, which has helped so much. We have 19 seniors, which after losing so many guys from last year’s roster, a lot of these guys will start for the first time. So in spite of some of our success there’s a hunger underneath. We’re not as big as we’ve been, but we are very strong.

“I think our guys have done a tremendous job of being leaders through this storm and staying faithful and process oriented. We have record breaking numbers in the weight room. We have wide receivers squatting over 400 pounds and benching over 300 pounds.

“We’ve lifted and practiced consistently right up until the Christmas break. This team has resolve and it has hunger. We are very excited to coach this football team. They’ve showed a lot of passion and commitment. They’ve taken a lot from the previous senior classes and have grown from that. We really push senior leadership and this group is ready for their opportunity.

“So how good are we? We’ll find that out. But how excited are we to coach this team? We’re extremely excited to coach this team. This team will compete with every team on our schedule.

“Our primary goal is to win the Marmonte League, but we know that may not be possible this year due to the pandemic. We’ve really had a tremendous rise from starting in the Frontier League, the small schools league in Ventura County, to now being in the Marmonte League. We’ve won six straight league championships between our time in the Frontier League, Tri-Valley League and Camino League and we want to keep that going. That’s always been the goal for us coming into this season.”

— Josh Henderson

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