Dana Hills’ program numbers expanded exponentially, but the Dolphins need new faces to step up after historic season
By Zach Cavanagh
The Dana Hills High School football team was a lot of things last year.
It was record-breaking, as the Dolphins saw numerous offensive passing marks fall, including single-game, single-season and career passing-yard performances by then-senior quarterback Bo Kelly. Kelly signed with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
It was historic, as Dana Hills returned to the playoffs for the first time in eight years with their best regular-season record since 2009. The Dolphins battled to overtime against El Modena, but their playoff run ended in the Division 5 first round.
What the Dolphins weren’t was particularly physical. Head coach Tony Henney said as much last season, when Dana Hills’ defense was bowled over by a 300-yard rushing performance by Trabuco Hills.
“I told our kids the only thing that could fix their 28 points and their sacks against us is a full year in the weight room for us,” Henney told the Dana Point Times that night.
So, Henney and the Dana Hills program committed to fixing that. Improvements were made to the weight room facility, and the Dolphins took advantage of the first full, regular offseason schedule since 2019.
Now, Dana Hills has built a sturdy offensive front that will be integral, as the Dolphins will have to grind out tighter games without the same explosive air attack. Dana Hills’ defense will lean forward with its front seven, as all of the Dolphins’ linemen understood their offseason assignments.
“All those guys had incredible offseasons,” Henney said. “They hadn’t gotten a lot of lifting in with the way COVID had been. They really transformed their bodies and got a lot stronger. We’re pretty happy with them as a group.”
Another growth that Henney is happy with in his second season at the helm is the size of the program.
Last season, Henney said his biggest goal program-wide was first to build numbers, either by getting current students to join up or to have incoming freshmen be excited to join a rising program. The Dolphins got both in spades.
Dana Hills had 16 freshmen and 55 players total at this time last year. In this year’s camp, the Dolphins had 55 freshmen come out for football, with a total of 120 players across the entire program.
“I didn’t think we’d pull off 55 freshmen after one year. That’s surprising,” Henney said. “It’s a good feeling to see the football community here buy into something new. It’s refreshing to have people saying, ‘What else can we do?’ Sometimes, you take over a program and people say, ‘Well, we’ve never done it like that before.’ It’s been good.”
Almost everything about this start to a new era of Dana Hills football has been good for Henney.
While Henney conceded that nobody thought they’d have such a strong start last season, it’s clear by the program numbers that nothing could have been a better billboard for Henney’s long-term project at Dana Hills. Henney has settled in for Year 2, and the program overall has embraced the change.
“Well, for one, and I really mean this, I really like it here,” Henney said. “The people—not just the boosters, the fans, the parents—were really receptive in trying to build something. I’m thrilled with the effort of the people involved in the program. Everybody coming together and saying, let’s make this a real thing. The past doesn’t have to repeat itself. Let’s be the best program we can possibly be.”
For all the highs that Year 1 brought for Henney and the Dolphins, Year 2 is where the real work begins.
It started in the weight room, but the biggest fights are ahead. Dana Hills lost nearly all of its dynamic offensive contributors to graduation, and the Dolphins graduated their entire secondary. There are a handful of senior leaders who remain, but new contributors must emerge.
Additionally, Dana Hills isn’t sneaking up on anybody anymore, and the schedule ahead in the Pacific Coast Conference is tougher, as the teams come closer together.
There is work to do for Dana Hills, but the Dolphins are ready to throw their punches.
Changing Offensive Focus
Going into last season, it was easy to see the offense forming around Kelly. Chemistry had built up with receiver Omar Black, and receiver Owen Chambers came in to give Kelly one more weapon to send the Dolphins’ passing attack truly over the top. However, all of those players are gone, and Dana Hills has to form something new.
There is only one returning offensive player with a varsity touchdown to his name: senior running back Christian Guarascio. Guarascio led Dana Hills in rushing with 612 yards and four touchdowns on 100 carries. He also caught 14 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown. Guarascio had two 100-yard rushing performances against Woodbridge and Laguna Hills.
The rest of the returners for Dana Hills come on the line, with senior center Johnny Owen, senior all-league left tackle Ethan Torbert and junior right tackle Kevin Garcia. Their improvements in size and strength have been noted, but they’ll be the most important players on the field for the Dolphins to succeed.
“I think if we’re going to have a good season, we’re going to have to be physical,” Henney said. “We’re going to have to be a real physical football team. If we can’t be that, we’re not going to be the video-game show we were from a points perspective. We better stand up and punch.”
Stepping into the shoes of Kelly at quarterback is senior Connor Vernon. Vernon saw only three games of action as a linebacker last season before tearing his ACL against Aliso Niguel. Vernon takes the keys to an offense that will have to be multifaceted.
“I tell people our offense is like McDonald’s,” Henney said. “One day, you’re going to order Big Macs. Some days, you’re going to order chicken nuggets. We’re just going to use parts of the menu that benefit our team. Obviously, Christian is going to be a big part of that, but you can’t just run the ball these days. You have to be able to throw the ball, too, and we’re working on it. It’s going really well.”
Vernon is developing a passing attack with players such as senior Blaize Bolter and junior Noah Brown. Dana Hills will get a big jolt for its passing game if or when junior San Juan Hills transfers Chase Berry and Noah Kucera become eligible. Dana Hills may not get their services until after a transfer sit-out period, but their speed will bring a much-needed, over-the-top dynamic for the Dolphins.
Defensive Strength Shifts
Last season, Dana Hills’ hits came in from the secondary.
As with the aforementioned physicality issue, it was up to the safeties, corners and outside linebackers to come up and finish off running plays, as well as to defend the pass. The Dolphins graduated their top four tacklers from a year ago, and all of them came from that back half of the defense.
However, as it did for the offensive line, the offseason was good to the defensive line in the weight room. Dana Hills will have plenty of guys going both ways up front, but the line will be where the Dolphins’ defensive effort emanates.
“We’re pretty multiple on defense,” Henney said. “I think we have a chance to be better than we were a year ago, even though we have a brand-new secondary. We’re just going to be much more physical up front as a group.”
Torbert will come over from the offensive side and again lead that Dana Hills front. Young players including juniors Mitch Hill and Nate DePierro will help bolster the run-stopping and pass-rushing on the line.
Backing up the line is a solid linebacking corps led by senior Ethan Brougham. Brougham is the leading returning tackler for Dana Hills, with 62 total tackles last season, including 38 solo tackles and 24 assisted tackles.
Senior Deacon Hill will also make an impact at linebacker. Guarascio will also be in the mix for the linebackers.
Changes to League Makeup, Name
Every year, the Pacific Coast Conference will swap the last-place team from its upper league and the first-place team from its lower league. This year, that means Portola goes down and Northwood comes up.
This season, those leagues also see changes with their actual names.
When the Pacific Coast League expanded to become the Pacific Coast Conference with the additions of Dana Hills and Laguna Hills, it created two new four-team leagues: the Pacific Hills League and the Pacific Valley League. Dana Hills and Laguna Hills were, appropriately, in the Pacific Hills League, along with Portola and, later, Irvine.
This season, the Pacific Hills League is now back to the old Pacific Coast League moniker, and the Pacific Valley League is now the Pacific Hills League. Following along?
Dana Hills is in the Pacific Coast League with Laguna Hills, reigning league champion Irvine and Northwood, the Pacific Valley League and CIF-SS Division 11 champion. The Pacific Hills League is made up of Beckman, Portola, University and Woodbridge.
Last season, the upper league eviscerated the lower league with an unbeaten record and a litany of lopsided scores. This season, Henney doesn’t think that will be the case.
“I think there’s going to be some real dogfight games,” Henney said. “Even the other league will be better. I think it’s going to be interesting. There’s going to be more mix and match.”
“I think it’s going to be a very competitive football season.”
Assessing the CIF-SS Playoff System
The CIF-SS enters the second season of its in-season, power-ranking-determined playoff format. Playoff divisions will again be decided after the season by the algorithm of calpreps.com, which is updated each week with the latest results.
For the most part, Dana Hills had no qualms about the new system. Despite the first-round loss, the Dolphins were in no way outclassed being in Division 5. However, Henney wonders if Dana Hills shouldn’t have been a bit lower, and who knows how that Dolphins offense plays in a lower division.
“You look at it two ways,” Henney said. “We played a really competitive game that went to overtime against a team that was very good and had a chance to win it. So, I don’t know how much you can gripe. I will say, the only thing I did think: our best win was against a team that was ranked in Division 8, and how does that equal Division 5 (for us)? I don’t know. That didn’t seem correct. However, if it was the old system, we would’ve been in Division 12 and probably won the whole thing.”
Pacific Coast Conference members Northwood and Woodbridge benefited from the format. Northwood was 5-5 in the regular season, but the Timberwolves won their first-ever CIF-SS title in Division 11. Woodbridge was 3-7 in the regular season and advanced to the semifinals in Division 12. Dana Hills beat Northwood, 56-30, and Woodbridge, 34-6.
Dana Hills doesn’t belong all the way down in those divisions, as they demonstrated with those big wins over Northwood and Woodbridge. However, it does point to the idea that teams can benefit by slipping to divisions below their station. Examples of this played out last season with Orange Lutheran winning Division 2 as the only Trinity League playoff team not in Division 1, as well as perennial powerhouse Long Beach Poly tearing through the Division 4 playoffs.
On the other hand, it does give other teams, like Northwood, Woodbridge or even Orange Lutheran, opportunities to win CIF-SS championships that they otherwise would never have had a shot of capturing.
Ultimately, the first year of this playoff system showed teams can’t control where they land, but they can control whether they qualify or not.
To get back to the playoffs and try to get their first playoff win since 2009, the Dolphins have a lot of building to do.
Zach Cavanagh is the sports editor for Picket Fence Media. Zach is a multiple California Journalism Award winner and has covered sports in Orange County since 2013. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ZachCav and follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SouthOCSports. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.