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How a once struggling deaf football team rode a historic season to a championship game

<i>Jack Hannah/CNN</i><br/>CSBR fans root for their team during Saturday's championship game.
Jack Hannah/CNN
CSBR fans root for their team during Saturday's championship game.

By Nick Watt and Jack Hannah, CNN

Founded 68 years ago, the Cubs, the football team of the California School for the Deaf Riverside, had never reached a championship game.

“I mean, the team stunk, quite honestly,” Jordy Valencia, the team’s 6-foot-2 starting wide receiver told CNN. “CSDR were often viewed as kind of a laughingstock, right, we’re always gonna have these lousy seasons. But that has not been the case this season.”

A stunning 12-0 campaign started with a 68-0 rout. CSDR followed that with a 46-0 romp, and then they cruised to a 64-22 victory. Their average winning margin was nearly 50 points.

“I’ve lost count,” said Valencia with a grin when asked how many touchdowns he had scored.

The historic season culminated with the Cubs’ first ever championship game Saturday night.

So, what was different this year?

“We practice strong, we work together,” said Enos Zornova, another wide receiver who also plays defense as a cornerback. “We’ve got this sense of brotherhood amongst us. We’re a family.”

CSDR is the only deaf high school in their division, and one of only two high schools for the deaf in California. Every Cubs player is deaf, and so is their coach, Keith Adams, who many credit with the team’s dramatic turnaround this year.

“We’ve played against other good teams,” said Adams. “But we just keep beating them.”

Though many opponents underestimated them, the Cubs never did.

“I think they do dismiss us oftentimes. They think we’re a deaf school, no big deal,” Zornoza said. “And I think it’s a lesson learned for them that deaf people out there, in other programs, can do better than they are doing.”

CSDR, with just 130 students, plays in an eight-player league designed for smaller schools — the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Division II. The championship game should have been held at home for the Cubs. But tickets sold out within 45 minutes, so the game was moved to a bigger school nearby with big bleachers to accommodate the Cubs’ growing fan base.

On Saturday night, after the cheerleading squad signed the National Anthem, the Cubs faced off against Faith Baptist, a team that often lifts the championship trophy. They are a perennial powerhouse.

Faith Baptist leapt to a 28-0 lead in the first quarter, despite coach Adams’ frantic signs from the sidelines. The Cubs’ defense was buckling. And then, a daring hook-and-ladder play on a fourth down led to a Cubs touchdown and sparked a revival. Just before halftime, the Cubs were back to within six points.

Football is a loud game: the fans, the bands, the clash of helmets and groans of pain. But for the Cubs there is only silence. So how do they feed off the energy of the crowd?

“With our eyes,” Zornoza said. “During your breaks during halftime you look around, they’re cheering, their hands are waving in the air. You see their energy. That feels so good.”

Zornoza said the team uses American Sign Language to its advantage.

“During the game we’re able to throw out plays, exact plays,” Zornoza said. “Hearing teams don’t understand what our plays are, what’s being shared on the field.”

The Cubs don’t even need to huddle before plays.

“This is our first language, this is our native language,” Adams said. “We’re using our native language on the field.”

The Cubs say they can also read their opponents’ body language better than a hearing player.

“Our visual acuity is more alert than your hearing opponents. We use that as an advantage,” said wide receiver Valencia.

This year they used that advantage to go from laughingstock to media darlings.

“Now we’ve got TV producers, movie producers reaching out to us. It’s endless!” Adams said. “It definitely feels like we’ve reached celebrity status!”

On Saturday, Valencia, the Cubs greatest offensive threat, suffered an injury around halftime. Suddenly, he was out of the game. Soon the starting quarterback hobbled off as well. His already limping brother had to take over as playmaker.

The burly Faith Baptist boys proved too much, and the second half was a blow-out.

After the final whistle, the Cubs players were on their knees crying uncontrollably. They were not in this for a sweet story about gallant deaf kids done good. They were in this to win.

“They’ve taught us a lesson,” defensive coordinator Kaveh Angoorani signed to his distraught team after they received their runner-up trophy. “And that means the expectation is going to be greater for next year.”

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