As first years on the job go, Justin Price’s at Yucaipa ranks pretty high. The former Granite Hills coach led a senior-dominated team to its best finish in the Citrus Belt League since joining the league in 2006, as the Thunderbirds tied Redlands and Miller for second place in league, making the playoffs after missing the postseason a year before.
“I thought we did some great things last year,” Price said. “We were playing REV in week nine for a chance to win the league title, which is a huge step for this program. We were a coin-flip away from hosting a playoff game for the first time in a long time. We are pretty proud of what we did, especially we didn’t have a full offseason to work together.”
While Yucaipa loses 12 of its 22 starters along with several key contributors, Price is hoping that having a full offseason will compensate for any lack of experience and keep 2010’s momentum going. Having three of those returning starters coming on the offense line helps even more.
Yucaipa is bullish on its three senior returners on the offensive line – Matt Parrish (6-5, 300), Tyrin Loya (5-10, 250) and Andrew Clarey (6-2, 290). Parrish and Loya started every game last year, with Parrish receiving interest from Division I schools.
The best part of being in the second year of a new program is that the first year is over. Jurupa Hills coach Edward McMillon definitely agrees with that point of view.
“It’s a lot different this year compared to last year,” McMillon said. “The kids have been in the program for over a year and know what to expect, which allows us to work on some more things and really concentrate on getting better rather than teaching. Having juniors and sophomores gives you more options than having sophomores and freshmen.”
While the Spartans are a year bigger, a year smarter and a year more mature after their 1-7 debut of a year ago, size is still a bit of an issue at Jurupa Hills. The Spartans are pretty deep at the skill positions, but they are lacking for size in the trenches.
“We just don’t have that many big guys,” McMillon said. “We have a lot of athletes, but they all seem to be a little small. Hopefully we’ll get some bigger guys in time, but we are a pretty small team right now.”
Cajon High School has 32 seniors coming back from a team that went through the San Andreas League undefeated for the second time in three years en route to a berth in the Central Division semifinals. But there isn’t much satisfaction among the Cowboys, who still remember the painful 42-41 overtime loss to Colton in the semifinals.
“We hope that having 32 seniors that have played in some big games and have been to the semifinals will pay off for us,” Cajon coach Kim Battin said. “We look at what we have this year position-by-position compared to last year and we feel pretty good about how we stack up.”
Leading the way for the Cowboys is defensive back/wide receiver Damontae Kazee. Kazee (6-0, 175) was an all-CIF performer on defense and the leading receiver for the Cowboys offensively. He verbally committed to the University of Washington over the summer but is still receiving interest from all over the Pac-12, namely Arizona State and UCLA.
Kazee will combine with senior tight end Taylor Moore (6-2, 215) to give new quarterback Edwin Martinez (6-1, 215) some elite targets. Martinez has huge shoes to fill, as the former linebacker replaces All-Sun Player of the Year Thomas Carter.
If there’s one thing that Serrano has had during the last four years, where it has won three Mojave River League titles and has gotten to at least the CIF semifinals the last three seasons, it’s been a workhorse running back. Be it Cory Diederich or Dionza Bradford or, in last year’s case, Taylor Ruize, the Diamondbacks have been able to run the ball.
This year, the Diamondbacks have three tailbacks that they have faith in. Senior Darius Hogan (5-10, 170) is more of a scatback, while fellow senior Zak Tuman (5-9, 190) adds a physical element. Junior Michael Hawkins (6-0, 190) may be the best of the three eventually, as he has the size-speed blend that Bradford possessed. Add that to a solid fullback in senior Nick Heftman (5-10, 195) and an experienced, physical offensive line and confidence is high in Phelan for the upcoming season.
“We have three running backs that I feel can do the job,” Maholchic said. “We can mix and match them and play them more on defense because I have faith in all of them. It’s a good thing to have.”
Three of Serrano’s five returning offensive starters are senior o-linemen, with Mark Knapp (6-4, 300) receiving Division I interest and Anthony Mackesy (6-2, 230) in his third year as a starter. Tracy Costello (5-10, 220) also returns.
Being as good as Kaiser was last year, as the Cats won 12 games in a row by at least 12 points before being upset by Wildomar Elsinore in the CIF-SS Eastern semifinals, allowed the Cats to play a lot of backups and young players late in games. With 18 of his 22 starters from last year having graduated, Kaiser coach Phil Zelaya hopes that the “garbage time” playing time of last year pays off this year.
“The good thing is that we have guys that have gotten some time at the varsity level,” Zelaya said. “The bad thing is that most of those guys don’t have the experience of playing four quarters. That what we hope they’ll be able to adapt to.”
Where Kaiser was decimated more than anywhere was along their defensive line and defensive backfield. The Cats lost Division I talents in defensive backs Desman Carter and Davonte Manning, defensive linemen Walter Earnest and linebacker Dennis Taylor. In their stead are players that Zelaya is curious to see how they’ll pan out.
“I know they are going to play hard and play physical, I just don’t know if they are as talented as the guys we had,” Zelaya said. “I hope playing last year as a bit of a shock to the system and that it’ll help this year.”
This offseason should have been a celebration for the Victor Valley High School football program, as the Jackrabbits completed a three-year ascent from Desert Sky League doormat to champion, winning the league and advancing to the CIF-SS Eastern Division quarterfinals under first-year coach Eric Perry.
But the Jackrabbits were turned upside down in June, when Perry’s contract was not renewed due to teaching credentialing issues. That caused him to take an assistant job at La Quinta and prompted Leland Eudy, who had spent 18 years as the head man at Victor Valley before serving as defensive coordinator a year ago, to return for his third stint of coaching the Jackrabbits.
“I quit coaching altogether in March but when this all went down in June, they wanted me to come back and I agreed,” Eudy said. “I’ve been coaching this group of kids since they were freshman, so that should help us move past this and build on what we’ve done these past few years.”
The Jackrabbits will lack the explosive passing game they’ve had in recent years, with all-league quarterback Zeke Julien and explosive receivers Isaiah Kepley and Traevon Beddard having graduated. Marcus Zamora (5-10, 170) is the only returning receiver.
Year three is when many new schools start to be innudated with veteran leaders. That’s not the case at Oak Hills, which is suffering a pretty severe senior shortage after making the playoffs in its first two seasons of play.
“We knew this was coming,” Oak Hills coach Robert Kistner said. “A lot of the sophomores from a couple of years ago stayed at their school rather than coming over to play for us because they felt they could get on the field quicker. So we knew that this year was going to be shorthanded as far as seniors go. But we really like the seniors we have.”
Leading the way for Oak Hills’ senior class is running back Marshaun Coprich and cornerback/wide receiver Garrett Reece-Scott. Coprich (5-5, 180) led the Bulldogs in rushing last year, running for 1,150 yards and nine touchdowns, while Reece-Scott (5-9, 170) was a lockdown corner for Oak Hills along with being the team’s leading receiver.
The Bulldogs will need junior quarterback David Richardson (6-2, 220) to take a bit of the heat off Coprich and an offensive line that has three new, underclassmen starters. Richardson threw for 835 yards and eight touchdowns last year, five to Reece-Scott.
San Gorgonio coach Ron Gueringer openly admits that his Spartan team caught people by surprise last year. After going 2-8 in his first year in 2009 and opening last year 0-4, San G won seven games in a row before falling to Moreno Valley Rancho Verde in the CIF-SS Central quarterfinals.
The Spartans ended up defeating and finishing ahead of eventual CIF champion Colton in the San Andreas League, finishing second behind Cajon. So the element of surprise for San G has completely disappeared.
“There’s going to be no sneaking up on people this year,” Gueringer said. “Last year people overlooked us and didn’t expect much so we were able to work out way in there. But there’s going to be a target on our back this year.”
San G returns five players that Gueringer says could receive Division I scholarships, led by senior linebacker Ryan Hunter-Sims (6-0, 225). Hunter-Sims, a captain last year as a junior, is moving from defensive tackle to linebacker, a position that San Diego State is interested in him playing.
Things were going swimmingly for Aquinas heading into the playoffs a year ago, as a fourth consecutive league title and a 9-1 record had the Falcons ranked No. 2 in the East Valley Division going into the playoffs. But maybe they were going a bit too well.
“I’m not going to say that we overlooked Yucca Valley, but I think we got a little too proud of ourselves,” Aquinas coach Nick Matheny said. “Yucca came and knocked us in the mouth and shocked us a bit.”
The Trojans scored 21 unanswered points in the first half and pulled off the 21-14 upset, as the Falcons ended their season before Thanksgiving for the first time since 2003, when they didn’t make the playoffs at all. That’s disappointment has served as fuel for Aquinas in the offseason.
Aquinas will also get fuel from its array of skill-position players it has returning, namely senior running back Burrell Handy (5-8, 165). Handy led the county in scoring as a junior, rushing for 1,377 yards and 22 touchdowns while serving as the workhorse of the offense.
Carter’s run to its first winning season since 2006 and its second straight playoff berth last year was predicating on a stifling defense that held opponents to a scant 11.9 points per game. So the Lions’ opponents should be a little worried about Carter coach Alex Pierce’s thoughts on that unit heading into his fourth season at the helm.
“We were one of the best defenses in the division last year, if not the best,” Pierce said. “And we’re going to be better this year.”
The reason for that confidence is eight returning starters to a swarming, relentless unit that almost held Arroyo Valley to negative yards in a win-or-go-home regular-season finale last year. Leading the way is junior defensive tackle Kenny Clark (6-2, 278), a national-champion heavyweight wrestler and a starter on the offensive line as well.
“If there’s a better defensive tackle in the county than Kenny, I really hope we don’t have to face them,” Pierce said. “Kenny is quick, strong, relentless, never gets tired. He’s got very good grades and is going to be a big-time recruit.”