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In the first week of August, second-year Simi Valley football coach Jim Benkert expressed the rising interest in the program. He spoke about the 40 freshmen that came out to play. He talked about the shot in attendance after winning eight games last season. He even mentioned the waiting list to be a team manager.

That kind of interest is new, so is Benkert’s vision to build a winning football tradition at a school that’s never won a CIF title.

“We have a championship game this week and I’m still thinking of ways we can get the student body excited, which is hard because it’s Thanksgiving break,” Benkert said.

It’s still a work in progress, but it’s trending in the right direction.

Friday’s CIF Southern Section Division 10 final at home against Crescenta Valley will be the first title appearance in 72 years for Simi Valley. The team’s 10-win season is also the first in school history, according to Benkert. Kick off is at 7 p.m.

The Pioneers’ 18 wins in the past two seasons is more than the previous three combined. Simi Valley’s turnaround is remarkable, but not completely unexpected since Benkert’s arrival after multiple CIF title campaigns at Westlake and Oaks Christian. Benkert will be going for his sixth CIF crown on Friday.

“It will actually be my second CIF title game at Simi Valley,” Benkert said laughing. “In 2009 when I was coaching Westlake High we played Moorpark at Simi Valley for the championship.”

Senior running back Elijah Leiva has been the catalyst for Simi Valley’s success this season, accumulating 1,706 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns (one receiving), including nine games with 100 yards or more. Leiva carried the ball 30 times in the team’s semifinal win over Orange last week.

“The kid is a workhorse,” Benkert said. “He just does his job.”

Defensively, linebacker JimE Deyoung leads the team with 125 tackles. Benkert calls Deyoung a “throwback” player.

“He’ll play bloody, limping, doesn’t matter,” said Benkert. “He’s the heart and soul of this team.”

Deyoung has bounced around local schools before landing at Simi Valley this year, including stops at Alemany and Valencia.

“I’m just glad to be part of history,” Deyoung said.

Sophomore quarterback Travis Throckmorton is where the foundation of Benkert’s vision for tradition lies. Throckmorton’s debut season as a varsity starter is promising. He’s thrown for 1,988 yards, 17 touchdowns and only three interceptions. He’s also ran for six touchdowns this season.

Tradition is difficult to create. Winning is a good start. Winning a CIF title is a great start.

LA Daily News