SAN JOSE — D’Angelo McKenzie doesn’t have to be reminded how close Valley Christian came to winning a state football championship last season.
He can still see the pass falling from the sky.
“I kind of think about that play every day,” McKenzie said. “We make the catch, we would’ve won. It’s kind of a thing to keep me accountable, look forward and look ahead. Next time, I know I’ve got to make that play.”
The Hail Mary pass never reached McKenzie’s fingertips, knocked away at the last moment by a defender on the final play. Valley Christian lost to Madison-San Diego 21-17, an outcome that has kept the Warriors hungry as they enter a new season.
Valley Christian graduated some key pieces from the team that came inches from its first state crown, including the quarterback who threw the pass, Miles Kendrick.
But McKenzie, a standout safety and receiver, and defensive end RJ Stone are among several high-profile players who should keep the Warriors in the hunt for more success this fall.
The motivation clearly is there.
“It all started after the state game,” McKenzie said. “We all know we have to make it back there and prove ourselves, especially for the seniors that left. They gave us a talk. They said we know you guys can get back here.
“A lot of guys were sad and crying. A lot of seniors were crying. I had a smile on my face, just saying we’re going to make it back.”
Since the end of last season, McKenzie has become a prize in the eyes of college recruiters, with offers from Notre Dame and several Pac-12 schools, including UCLA.
While McKenzie was the receiver targeted on the final play last season, his biggest impact was on defense, where coordinator Eric Scharrenberg devised a plan for him to play two positions simultaneously.
“Definitely as the season went along, we changed a lot of what we did, as you got a better sense of things D’Angelo could do,” Scharrenberg said. “Often times, especially in the free safety position, it’s what they can handle in terms of game planning, the mental side of the game.
“At the end of the year, essentially he was playing two positions. So we were playing with 12 guys, it felt like at times, because he was able to play linebacker and free safety at the same time.”
The added responsibility caught McKenzie off guard.
“At first, I was like, ‘This is crazy. Coach is moving me up here to play some linebacker.’ I was like, ‘Alright, I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.’
“I love to hit. So I stood there, played the position and used the athleticism to get in a groove and just play.”
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McKenzie began his high school career at Mt. Pleasant, where as a freshman he contributed to a team that won nine games and made the Central Coast Section playoffs.
But with many players graduating and the team still relegated to a “C” league, McKenzie sought opportunities elsewhere.
He submitted applications to Valley Christian and Bellarmine College Prep.
“Didn’t get into Bellarmine, but I got into Valley Christian,” said McKenzie, who lives with his grandmother. “We just pursued Valley Christian and came here.”
As a transfer, McKenzie said he would have been ineligible for the first five games his sophomore season had he played on Valley Christian’s varsity team.
So instead, he opted for a full season on the junior varsity team.
The coaches quickly noticed his toughness.
“The sophomore year when he was on the JV team, he had injuries that he had to overcome a little bit,” Scharrenberg said. “He’s an overcomer. He’s a guy who has responded well whenever he’s been challenged with adversity.”
Scharrenberg anticipates even more from McKenzie this season.
“I think you’ll see D’Angelo emerge as a little bit more of a weapon on the offensive side of the ball this year,” he said. “He can do any number of things. How we end up using him on that side will depend on how the season plays out. Wouldn’t surprise me to see him used in a number of different roles.”
McKenzie, also a standout in track, had the Hail Mary pass from Kendrick deflected away by Madison’s Terrell Carter, who is now on the football team at San Jose State.
“I thought he was going to throw to Anthony (Flores) because that’s our guy,” McKenzie said. “But he saw me, I guess. He threw it up and then it just felt like slow-motion from there.
“I am just looking and in my head I am thinking about all the ways, what am I going to do to catch the ball? Am I going to go up? Am I going to wait until he comes up and then I just catch it? I went up for it, and it was placed in my hands and … boom, the defense batted it down.”
“It’s motivated me a lot, just to keep going, just to keep playing.”
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