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Tough times help turn Garden Grove into top team
The Garden Grove football team assembled for practice this week, looking like a confident team that's comfortable with CIF-SS finals preparation week.
In a way, the Argonauts are, considering this is their third appearance in the past four years. Garden Grove (11-2) will face Corona del Mar (11-2) in the CIF-SS Southern Division final on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Angel Stadium.
However, this journey hasn't been without its share of blood, sweat and a lot of tears.
Since the 2009 season, the program has had to attend two funerals — first for a player, Kevin Telles, who collapsed during a game in 2009, and then a couple of years later for former coach Joe Hay, who led the Argonauts to the 2009 CIF-SS Southern Division final.
Through all of the adversity, champions have been developed.
"I'll never know how these kids would have played if it hadn't been for the passing of Kevin Telles," Garden Grove coach Willy Puga said. "They're playing harder then any school I've ever been at. Is that (Telles' death) the reason why? I'll never know, but I know these guys play hard.
"You watch the film from the semifinal (against Laguna Beach). These guys are relentless. I think there is a type of kid in this community that's going to scrap for everything."
Garden Grove defeated Laguna Beach, 35-21, in the semifinals.
Puga credited Hay for keeping the Argonauts together in 2009 after Telles' death.
"The next year, we thought the job was to get back (to the finals) and win it," Puga said. "We had a good team and things just caught on.
"Last year was definitely a down year, but we talked about being a CIF finalist type of program ... that's what we want to build. I coached at Los Alamitos and Fountain Valley, and when we came here, we wanted to go at it not like it was a Garden Grove League, but like it was one of the top programs in the county. It is a thing to do at this school (play football), and it wasn't that way in the past."
To become the type of program that Puga wants, Garden Grove would have to make some sacrifices.
After losing in the first round of the 2011 playoffs to Segerstrom to wrap up a 4-7 season, the Argonauts took a week off and then returned to work.
"What we did in the offseason was crazy," senior linebacker Mahe Liava'a said. "We came back and started working every day. Before every workout, we would have a speed circuit and then train.
"Our speed training would be from 35-45 minutes and our workout would be an hour and half. It was basically just hard work and dedication."
That was the schedule for the next three months.
"At times, we felt tired and that we didn't want to do it, but we knew that it was going to pay off," Liava'a said. "The only thing going through my mind during the offseason was whether or not I wanted to be a 4-7 team or a team going back to the playoffs."
Liava'a is one of a handful of players, along with Semaj Bilal, C.J. Del Real and Josh Huff, who were on the 2010 team. All four were called up to the varsity team late that season, and the experience stayed with them.
"We had a lot of leaders and talent on that team," Bilal said of the 2010 team. "We still talk to a lot of players from that team. (They) challenged us to make it back, and we accepted the challenge and overcame a lot of people thinking that we couldn't."
Bilal has another motivation as kickoff approaches. As a freshman, he remembers the night Telles collapsed on the field.
"I couldn't believe it," he said.
"We kept the '45' chant (Telles' jersey number) ... we kept that alive. We have to remember that he died for this and we have to give it our all. His memory is still around here."