SAN JOSE — Something good is happening this season at the high school where Pat Tillman, the late football star turned war hero, once led to a section championship.
Leland is winning again, getting it done behind the staple of any successful operation: teamwork, hard work and an unquenchable desire to get better.
Last week, in an Almaden Valley rivalry game called the Battle of the Den, Leland got another superb performance from junior running back Kyle Anderson and stout defense to beat Pioneer 21-7.
The outcome ignited a jubilant celebration among the players, who hoisted a large wooden trophy presented to the winner, and made a weekend trip to Chicago pretty sweet for coach Mike Ward.
Married to a Pioneer alum, Ward and his wife traveled just hours after the game for a wedding that had a “good amount” of Pioneer alums on the guest list, according to Ward.
That made for an “interesting conversation when I ran into them Saturday morning,” he said.
Ward is in his second season as Leland’s head coach. After inheriting a 1-9 team, he went 2-8 in his first year, even though Leland had dropped from the Blossom Valley Athletic League’s “A” division to its “B” division, a mechanism designed to keep the playing field level for the league’s 24 teams.
Leland wants no part of that playing field.
Three days after last season ended, the players were back in the weight room, determined to get the program turned around.
Many players, in goals submitted to the coaches, said their top priority was to elevate the program back to the BVAL’s top division.
“We came here in ‘A’ league, we dropped down to ‘B’ league, but we want to leave Leland where we found it,” Anderson said. “That was always the goal from Day 1. Seeing the team this year, it’s pretty cool because you start to think that’s possible. We’ve definitely put in a lot of work to get to that goal of ours. I am excited to see where it goes.”
Their coach is determined to help them get there.
Ward grew up in Baltimore, played Division III college football in Pennsylvania and spent seven years in South Florida, where he cut his coaching teeth and met his wife, Kristi, while attending grad school at the University of Miami.
Though he hasn’t called the South Bay home that long, Ward quickly educated himself in Leland’s football history, one that includes former 49ers All-Pro tight end Brent Jones, Tillman and four CCS championships.
Tillman led Leland to a section crown in 1993 before moving on to Arizona State, the Arizona Cardinals and the U.S. Army after 9-11. He died from “friendly fire” in Afghanistan in 2004.
Leland’s football stadium is named in Tillman’s honor, and the school’s first home game each season is called the Tillman Legacy Classic.
This season, Leland beat Fremont-Sunnyvale 42-20 in the Tillman game.
“Pat Tillman, what he stood for and what he still stands for, matters to us,” Ward said. “When you ask about the tradition, I wasn’t here, but I know about it. We want to bring that back. We want Leland to be one of the programs that people say, ‘That’s a solid program. They compete every week. They’re hard workers. They play four quarters. They’re disciplined, and they have fun.’
“That’s what we’re looking for, for our kids to have all those attributes through the entire season and through the off season.”
It helps to have players like Anderson, who keeps bearing statistical fruit. He rushed for 1,435 yards and 16 touchdowns as a sophomore last season and has rushed 512 yards and eight touchdowns through three games this year.
Friday, Anderson ran for 208 yards and three TDs in the win over Pioneer.
“Kyle’s one of the hardest working kids I’ve ever been around,” Ward said. “In my opinion, he’s a next-level kid at some point. He’s just so electric. He’s shifty. He’s not a big kid, but you’ve got to bring it all when you come to tackle him because he is not going down without a fight.”
But Leland isn’t 3-0 only because of its star running back.
“We have a very solid offensive line,” Ward said. “Our center, Kyle Carrasquilla, he’s a senior. He has developed into a two-year starter and is one of the leaders of the offense. We have a sophomore quarterback, Carson Yates, who has just taken the reins and doesn’t look like he’s going to let go.
“On defense, we have 10 seniors all coming back from starting last year as juniors. On any given play, two or three of them just show up and ball out.”
The result: An undefeated record — and wins over “A” opponents Pioneer and Santa Teresa — heading into the league opener Sept. 22 at Del Mar.
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