St. Monica High School football coach Jason Strouse says that although the Mariners may come from a smaller school than some of their opponents this season, the team’s expectations are large enough to return St. Monica back to a winning program.

In Strouse’s first season as coach last year, the Mariners finished with a 4-5 overall record and fourth-place finish in the Camino Real League.

But Strouse got the coaching job assignment only in mid-July of last year, which he said was not enough time to properly prepare the team for the season.

While the senior players on last year’s squad were talented, it was the younger athletes who stepped up and made an impact, Strouse said.

“Some of the best players and most surprising players were not seniors,” he said.

This season many of those top players are returning, which will make St. Monica a “senior-dominated team,” Strouse said.

One of the top returning athletes for the Mariners is senior running back Vince Valdez, who is also a star on the St. Monica baseball team.

Another key returning senior player is Valdez’s brother, Ricky Valdez, who will move from the running back position to offensive lineman this season.

Other top senior players for the Mariners include safety John Parks and wide receivers Matt McGee and Taylor Watson, who will both play quarterback as well.

Some junior players who are expected to contribute include fullback David Najera, wide receiver and cornerback Anthony Flores and tackle Steven Bell.

Strouse said being head coach at St. Monica is a prestigious job, and he is confident he can lead the program back to the level it was at when the Mariners won a California Interscholastic Federation championship in 1998 under former coach Norm Lacy.

This year’s schedule will offer its share of tests for the Mariners, but Strouse said his team is ready to prove that it can compete with any opponent.

“There’s not a single game that we can’t win,” said Strouse, referring to the ten-game schedule. “We’re not trying to hide from anybody. We’re not that fast, but we have character and we’ll do the best we can.”

If the Mariners expect to be victorious by the end of the season, they will have to get through some challenging opponents early on who will test their strength for the rest of the season.

Strouse expects one of the biggest challenges for St. Monica to come from city rival Santa Monica High School when the two teams face off at 7 p.m. Friday, September 30th, at Santa Monica College Corsair Field.

This year will be the third meeting between the two Santa Monica high schools, which have each won a game. St. Monica won the first battle and Santa Monica grabbed the victory last year.

While Santa Monica may be considered the favorite to win because of its experience and much larger enrollment, Strouse said St. Monica is more than ready to show it can handle the challenge.

“We’re going to show up,” he said.

Other important non-league games for the Mariners will be against Malibu High School and Palisades High School.

The Mariners play all of their home games at St. Bernard High School in Playa del Rey.

St. Monica will start the 2005 football season at 7 p.m. Friday, September 9th, at Bishop Montgomery High School.

The Camino Real League season will begin Friday, October 14th, against La Salle High School.

“We hope to be real fired up,” Strouse said. “They’re an excitable bunch and that goes a long way in high school football.”