Finishing third in the Baseline League last year didn’t exactly sit well with the Rancho Cucamongna Cougars. Sure Rancho made the playoffs and redeemed itself with a bit of a run. But coach Nick Baiz and his team are used to contending for the top spot.
The new season is fast approaching and it looks like the Cougars (7-5 last year, 3-2 in Baseline) will be poised to challenge once again.
“We were definitely a little disappointed because we thought we were capable of more,” Baiz said. “Our guys are definitely motivated to show they’re better than that.”
The Cougars do have a luxury many of their counterparts don’t. They return some key skill position players including senior running back Aaron Manning and senior quarterback Angel Matute, both of whom started as sophomores. Matute threw for 2,855 yards and 24 touchdowns last year while Manning ran for 766 and nine scores.
The strength of the defense will be in the secondary as the Cougars boast three Division I prospects back there. That trio includes Thomas Graham, who has committed to USC, and junior Tayari Venable, who is headed to Washington State.
A third player, junior Jaylon Redd, hasn’t committed but has offers from most of the Pac 12 and he isn’t even a senior.
The fourth player back there, senior Darrial Busby, is the most experienced but isn’t being recruited quite so heavily because of his size.
While Baiz knows just how good his secondary is, he is quick to point out that it is only facet of the team. The Cougars did graduate most of their linebackers and some key performers on both lines. So success hinges on replacing those athletes.
“It’s still all about blocking and tackling and that’s where he have some question marks,” he said. “It’s not that I don’t think we have good players there, they are just untested.”
There are a handful of players that saw some playing time who should be able to come in and assume larger roles this season. That group includes junior wide receiver Tyree Baker, junior wide receiver David Farmer, linebacker Justin Johnson, senior defensive end Deshawn Maiava, senior defensive lineman Johnny Latu and younger brother Jonah Latu, an offensive lineman.
The Cougars start the new season on Aug. 28 with a non-league game against Trabuco Hills at Los Osos High School. They beat the same team 17-0 in the season opener last year.
The first league game will be on Oct. 9 at Damien.