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Valencia's Marrujo ready to continue the fight
PLACENTIA — Mike Marrujo has been there and done that as the Valencia football coach for 31 years. He is not unfamiliar with winning and losing and everything in between.
Yes, there is an in between. Marrujo, in fact, is all about the in between.
The first thing many fans look at is the record, and they surely are after the Tigers went 1-9 in 2011, their worst season since Marrujo took over in 1981. It was the third consecutive season the Tigers finished below .500, leaving their coach open to real criticism for the first time in his storied tenure.
"It's hard to go through that, especially when you're not used to it," Marrujo said. "Any time things don't go the way you want them, the first person you look at is yourself. I think it's just a natural thing to do, to start questioning some of the things you're doing."
Even at 61, Marrujo is still evolving as a football coach. Last year he abandoned his famed I-back formation for a trendier spread offense. It's what Valencia will again lean on, along with a revamped defense, in Friday's opener at Brea Olinda.
What he's not changing are the pillars he built the program on more than three decades ago: hard work, teamwork and loyalty. His resume includes 249 victories in Orange County, 13 league titles and more CIF-SS titles (three) than seasons without a playoff appearance (two).
But spend a few minutes with Marrujo and he'll tell you his top priority is not teaching football; it's the well-being of the impressionable teenagers on his team. He ultimately has no attachment to a win-loss record.
"I just hope that all of us, the coaches here, have influenced the kids that have played for us in a positive way," Marrujo said. "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."
Once upon a time Marrujo had no intention of being a high school coach. He had visions of becoming a lawyer after graduating from Long Beach State, but then he was asked to be an assistant at now-defunct Pius X in Downey, where he had lettered in football.
It didn't take long for him to realize how much he loved working with teenagers. He enjoyed it so much he turned down an offer to move up to the college ranks as a grad assistant at Colorado.
After taking over as the head coach at Pius X, the desire for better pay and benefits had him applying at public schools. He was a finalist for the Long Beach Poly job but he ended up at Valencia, which had reached the playoffs just twice before his arrival.
The Tigers made the playoffs his first 14 seasons before a 2-8 campaign in 1995. The next year they won the Orange League title, and went on to reach the postseason in each of the next 15 years.
No wonder Valencia, despite finishing last in the talented Empire League a year ago, was picked by the league coaches to finish third this season.
"I think we have an opportunity to win every game we play," Marrujo said. "I've always taken that approach. I always think we can win. Maybe it's delusional, but you have to be that way."
In the midst of last year's losing, his players said they noticed how Marrujo didn't give up, so neither did they, as evidenced by the team's close scores late into the season.
"A lot of his philosophies on life have rubbed off," senior linebacker Hayden Keefe said. "One thing he says all the time: It's not about winning and losing, it's about being able to face the man in the mirror. No matter the outcome, you know that you've tried. There are no off days with him."
Just this week, Valencia's practice was cut short one afternoon because a nearby resident had barricaded his home, forcing the school to impose a campus lockdown. Once Marrujo released the team, a group of seniors, unprompted, headed to a nearby park and did sprints for an hour.
"We wanted to get better," senior defensive end and running back Gabriel Perez said. "Every day we're getting better. Even though it was hot and late, we had to get our cardio in. Take an extra step."
That's why, as tough as last year was on Marrujo, he is still proudly walking with his school.
"I would never have walked away after going 1-9, not a chance," Marrujo said. "I haven't coached almost 40 years to walk away on 1-9. No way. Had I gone 9-1? Maybe, but not 1-9.
"It takes a lot out of you, it wears you out. But you got to pick yourself up and keep going."
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