The Scripps Ranch High School football team is off to its best start in school history with an undefeated season and high hopes of a California Interscholastic Federation title.
So how did a team known for decades of mediocrity rise to an explosive powerhouse on the field? You could make the argument that it all started in a doctor’s office.
Head coach Marlon Gardinera, now in his third season of a rebuild, is a coach obsessed with time. It was the biggest factor in his decision to take the job and remains the biggest motivator in his pursuit of something truly special.
“Time means everything,” said Marlon Gardinera. “Everything comes with a sense of urgency for me, so they know if I say something, I mean it -- I want it to happen quickly. But, I don’t know if they all know the root of why.”
Marlon Gardinera looks like a picture of health on the outside, walking the sideline with a loud voice and a confident strut, but on the inside, something is killing him.
In 1997, Marlon Gardinera was diagnosed with Amyloidosis, a rare disease which had already spread to his organs. Based on his doctor’s experience, Marlon Gardinera had one or two years left. The father of two boys, both under the age of 4, worried his sons would only know him through pictures and vowed to do everything possible to see them through high school.
An aggressive approach to buy more time came to fruition 18 months later when doctors transplanted Marlon Gardinera’s perfectly good liver with a new one as part of a medical strategy to “reset the clock.”
While the risk paid off, the new liver came with a whole new set of complications. Marlon Gardinera can’t fight off colds and ends up in the emergency room quite often. He has excruciating pain in his hands and feet as a result of his original diagnosis, and now deals with stage 3 chronic kidney disease.
In 2013, he had his biggest health scare when he went to the hospital unable to breath and spent the next eight days in a coma.
“It becomes real clear you don’t cheat death but so many times,” said Marlon Gardinera. “So, from that moment on, I’ve spent as much time as possible with my family.”
You could say his life took on the pace of a two-minute offense. The fast-talking, fast-moving San Diego native went on to volunteer at his kids’ schools and coach their teams. He’d frequently attend city council meetings to speak out on issues impacting Scripps Ranch. Based on his community involvement, it didn’t come as much of a surprise to neighbors when in 2017, he became the head football coach at the Scripps Ranch High School.
He accepted the job not for a love of x’s and o’s, but rather for a love of family. Marlon Gardinera’s oldest son was entering his freshman year, and the move would allow them to spend more time together.
Nicholas Gardinera, now a junior, and the team’s running back, said his favorite part has been watching his dad influence his friends and teammates.
“I appreciate the way he treats me and the relationship we have at home. Seeing him spread that relationship to a hundred people I know and give that same care, I think it’s pretty special,” said Nicholas Gardinera.
The players have grown used to the intensity with which Marlon Gardinera speaks. At practice he drifts between jokes and serious conversations with surgical precision.
“I feel like I’m trying to get as many messages in as you can without being corny or them glossing me over, but I try to make my words say something when I mean them,” said Marlon Gardinera.
But the coach knew he’d need more than time to turn around a program marred by years of defeat. He would need a blue print.
Just like his motivation for coaching, his strategy for success had little to do with football. One of his first moves as coach was establishing a new standard in the classroom for players. Instead of having to meet the minimum 2.0 GPA standard set by CIF, players were told they’d need get at least a 3.0 to play on the team.
“We don’t allow C’s. If you have a C, you don’t need to practice football, you need to practice school,” said Marlon Gardinera.
The coaches set up study hall for players, weekly grade checks, and a guidance plan to keep everyone on track. The goal was an overall team GPA of 3.6.
During his first year in 2017, they averaged out at a 3.24 GPA, and in 2018, it rose to a 3.59 GPA.
This past week, Marlon Gardinera tallied up his players’ grades and had to do a double take: the team GPA was an eye popping 3.71.
“I went down on the field, the kids got together, and you know, I’m a guy’s guy, 250 pounds, 46 years old, don’t cry often, but I lost it. The team got a 3.71 which for me, meant everything,” said Marlon Gardinera.
The coaching staff points to the “school first” approach as the reason for their success on the field this season. The Falcons entered Friday night’s game 8-0.
“They seem to understand the gravity of the situation,” said defensive coordinator John Taylor. “They don’t take anything for granted, and that’s what we get from Marlon, is that time is precious.”
Time. It’s what brought coach Marlon Gardinera to the Scripps Ranch High School football team. Now that they’re winning on and off the field, he’s having the time of his life.