Low numbers, high talent at Twentynine Palms

If Twentynine Palms coach Ernie Martinez looked at the number of players he has over their skill, he’d be a bit discouraged, as the Wildcats are in the low-30s – about 10 less than what they normally have. But when he looks at his acutal personnel, the excitement starts to come out.

“I think we have a really good, talented group of kids,” Martinez said. “If we can stay healthy, I think we have the chance to compete with anyone. But health is important to us, because we really don’t have many guys we can fall back on.”

The Wildcats, who won a share of De Anza League title last year for their fourth consecutive league crown, have 12 starters returning from last season. Leading the pack out of those 12 is senior running back Chris Fuifui.

At 6-2 and 235 pounds, Fuifui is a load at both running back and middle linebacker for Twentynine Palms, running for 1,136 yards and 14 touchdowns and adding another five touchdowns receiving en route to second-team all-Sun honors.

“He’s one of the premier backs in the county as far as I’m concerned,” Martinez said. “He can do a lot of things and really makes our offense go.”

Fuifui will have three returning offensive linemen to help him go, with senior Joe Kappus (6-1, 250) in his third year as a starting center. Senior tackle Elijah Hazzard (6-1, 260) and senior guard Iazaya Felton (5-11, 190) return offensively, as does senior fullback Cruze Candelaria (6-1, 220). Twentynine Palms is looking for a new quarterback, with sophomore Jake Culver and senior Leekyi Waring competing for the position.

The Wildcats defensively are led by an experienced secondary headed by junior safety Nate McClain (5-9, 170), one of the team’s leading tacklers a year ago. McClain will also play wide receiver, as will senior cornerback Daniel Geletko (5-11, 180). Candelaria will see some time at defensive end as well.

Twentynine Palms schedule (Home games in CAPS, * indicates league game)

Sept. 2: at Palm Desert Xavier Prep
Sept. 9: AQUINAS
Sept. 23: at Banning
Sept. 30: PALM SPRINGS
Oct. 7: at Cathedral City
Oct. 14: INDIO SHADOW HILLS*
Oct. 21: DESERT HOT SPRINGS*
Oct. 28: at Desert Mirage*
Nov. 4: YUCCA VALLEY*
Nov. 12: vs. Big Bear (Big Bear MS)

All home games will be played at Twentynine Palms Junior High.