Twentynine Palms has established itself as the gold standard in the De Anza League over the last three years, winning league titles all three seasons and progressing to the East Valley Division championship game in 2008. But in the midst of all this success, it’s the last failure that weighs on Wildcat coach Ernie Martinez’s mind.
“Our playoff loss last year was heartbreaking,” Martinez said. “Losing on a Hail Mary pass to the team (Ontario Christian) that lost 12-10 in the championship game is a tough way to go out. I thought we had a really good team last year and we were close to doing something big.”
Whether or not the Wildcats will do something big this year depends on how they reload. Twentynine Palms saw both of its all-CIF linebackers – Robert Caldwell and Austin Cole – graduate, along with starting QB Aaron Anderson. The Wildcats also got a tough break when running back Michael Pinto, who contributed over 800 yards of total offense and scored six touchdowns as a sophomore, moved away.
“Michael’s dad was in the military and they were reassigned to a different base,” Martinez said. “That’s one of the things we deal with out here. Kids move in and out due to the military all the time. Sometimes it works in our favor and sometimes we’ll lose a talented kid.”
Twentynine Palms is rather green at its skill positions, especially at quarterback. One of two seniors, Austin Britt or Logan Miller, will take the reins from Anderson. At running back, Martinez is looking for either juniors Chris Fuifui (6-1, 230) – who has been a varsity player since he was a freshman – or Derrick Nealy (6-1, 230), who will also see time at linebacker.
But where Twentynine Palms really has the advantage is on the offensive line. The Wildcats return four of their five starters from a year ago on the line, led by massive 6-4, 323-pound senior Tuvulu Meli. Meli is getting looks from San Jose State and various other colleges. Matt Sims (6-3, 275) and O.J. Fasago (6-1, 190) are also key players on the line.
Defensively the Wildcats will be led by Meli at defensive tackle and Nealy at linebacker. Senior cornerback Dromynique Chestnut (5-10, 185) is the key returning player in the secondary.
Twentynine Palms 2010 schedule (Home games in CAPS, * for league games)
Sept. 3 – Xavier Prep (site TBA)
Sept. 10 – at Aquinas
Sept. 24 – BANNING
Oct. 1 – at Palm Springs
Oct. 8 – CATHEDRAL CITY
Oct. 15 – at Shadow Hills*
Oct. 22 – at Desert Hot Springs*
Oct. 29 – DESERT MIRAGE*
Nov. 5 – at Yucca Valley*
Nov. 12 – BIG BEAR*
All home game will be played at Twentynine Palms Junior High School.