The first games of the 2019 football season are two months away, and while it may seem too early for any sort of projections, it’s not too early to take a general look at each of the new playoff divisions in the North Coast Section and identify some of the key questions which will need to be answered over the course of the year.
Contenders – De La Salle, Liberty, Pittsburg
Okay, so there is likely only one real contender here, after the state eliminated the possibility of a runner-up moving on and the section’s Board of Managers voted down a proposal which would have allowed Division I to have basically become a double-elimination bracket crowning two champions. But that doesn’t mean that the other top contenders won’t gear up for their shot at De La Salle.
Liberty returns key players at every position, but does need to replace workhorse back Tyerell Sturges-Cofer and two-way standout Sione Vaki. With Jay Butterfield back behind center, however, the Lions have one of the key pieces needed to threaten the Spartans, and that is an elite signal-caller. And the impact of losing Sturges-Cofer will become more bearable when transfer Justice Jackson becomes eligible after an anticipated sit-out period.
That being said, don’t hand the BVAL to Liberty again just yet. Pittsburg graduated key pieces such as Jacob Bandes and De’jon Benton, but the Pirates only lost to the Lions by three points last year, and that was with the offense committing five turnovers. If Pitt can establish some stability and production out of the quarterback position, the Pirates always have the bodies up front to get the job done.
With just 13 teams in this field, more than half will qualify for the playoffs, but the quality of these teams is elite. And there are a number of other teams in this field who can also threaten for a berth in the title game. That includes Monte Vista, which returns quarterback Jack Stewardson and receiver Nate Rutchena, arguably the top returning pass-and-catch combo in the section, and at least in this division. Meanwhile, San Ramon Valley lost two-way standout Tristan Sinclair to graduation, but the Wolves return senior road-grader Colin Moroney up front, while Jacob Himan emerged as an every-down back at the conclusion of the 2018 season.
Contenders – Clayton Valley, Campolindo
Campolindo was part of an appeal put forth by the Diablo Athletic League to remove Clayton Valley from league play in football, sending the Ugly Eagles to the EBAL by reason of competitive equity. But the new divisional alignments for the playoffs mean that if the Cougars want to re-establish themselves as section champions, they will still need to go through Clayton Valley.
Of course, Campolindo does return two of the elite athletes in the section, with senior quarterback Grant Harper and defensive end Mason Mastrov. Clayton Valley, however, not only boasts a deep roster and physical line play, but also two of the most explosive returning athletes in the section, with running back Makhi Gervais and receiver Rayshawn Jackson. This certainly appears to be the Ugly Eagles’ best chance of advancing to the CIF bowl series since falling to Narbonne in the 2015 I-A state final.
Other teams which could contend here include Vintage-Napa, Granada and San Leandro. San Leandro’s run game got an off-season boost with the transfer of Steven Henry II, who could be a home-run hitter in the Pirates’ Wing-T attack. Granada and Vintage advanced deep in the playoffs last year, but both teams suffered significant losses to graduation and will need to prove that they have been able to reload.
Contenders – Bishop O’Dowd, Rancho Cotate
The big question here is the obvious one – for the first time since 2014, who carries the load for Bishop O’Dowd, now that Austin Jones is at Stanford after four straight 1,000-yard seasons for the Dragons? O’Dowd petitioned up to Division III after being placed in Division IV with the new alignment, despite winning Division II last season. But that doesn’t mean the Dragons will have an easy road to the title in 2019.
After seeing its offense stall out in the 2018 section semifinals, Rancho Cotate has a hunger for success in 2019, especially with Jared Stocker back at quarterback plus Rasheed Rankin and Sumari Jones back to handle the load in the running game. Stocker was injured early in that semifinal loss and unable to play nearly all of the game. Of course, O’Dowd will litter the field with top-notch athletes, including standout wide receiver Sterling Stokes, who could be catching balls from junior Jesse Madden, the grandson of John Madden. Another product of NFL lineage, defensive end and tight end Colton Vardell, should be a force on both sides of the ball for the Dragons.
Another team to expect to be in the mix is an El Cerrito squad which has become a consistent contender. If the Gauchos can replace the leadership behind center of under-rated quarterback Tyler Dickson, who has graduated, they once again have the talent to knock off anyone. That includes defensive leader Jason Brooks at inside linebacker, plus home-run hitters Raymond Davis and Elias Williams in the backfield.
Meanwhile, Las Lomas is out to prove that its two-year resurgence under coach Doug Longero, and last year’s unbeaten regular season, is no mirage. Gone is quarterback Dylan Graham and receiver Blake Thorpe, but standout running back Isaiah Newell returns for his senior season, as does big-time receiving threat Jalen Apalit-Williams. Zac Transue anchors the defensive line after a banner junior season. The Knights will also be much more battle-tested in 2019, moving into the DAL-Foothill Division and adding non-league games against regional powers such as Bishop O’Dowd and Milpitas.
Contenders – Cardinal Newman, Marin Catholic
With O’Dowd petitioning up one division, this has all the makings of a familiar two-team race, though Acalanes senior quarterback Nick Kresnak is talented enough to throw a wrench into those plans.
Both of these parochial powers, who scrimmage each other every year, are led by talented dual-threat quarterbacks, with Cardinal Newman senior Jackson Pavitt serving as arguably the top dual-threat signal-caller in the section. But Marin Catholic senior Gaven Cooke grew by leaps and bounds last season, and his experience will be valuable once again. The similarities do not end there with the teams. Both also return juniors at running back who made an impact as sophomores, with Shane Moran for Cardinal Newman and Mateo Perez for Marin Catholic.
Both quarterbacks will have reliable targets to throw to, including Cardinal Newman’s Giancarlo Woods and Marin Catholic’s Harry Mauterer, but the big difference maker could be in the trenches, where MC senior Jamar Sekona could be an unstoppable force in 2019.
Acalanes is a dark-horse team in this division, with Kresnak, receiver Lucas Eppinger and linebacker Tommy Thrasher among the top returnees, but the Dons must also navigate a difficult regular season schedule, one which includes games against Las Lomas, Campolindo, Miramonte, Sacred Heart Cathedral, Vintage and El Cerrito.
Contenders – Moreau Catholic, Fortuna, Miramonte, Eureka
After losing to Fortuna in the Division 4 final last season, Moreau Catholic returns two of the top athletes in this division, with standout running back Fresh Ison and quarterback Bowen Dickstein. Receiver and defensive back Nikko Reed is another rising star for the Mariners, while senior Solomon Thomas could be a force on the edge of both lines.
Fortuna stormed to the Division 4 title last year, but the Huskies now face the reality of most small public schools which have had extended runs of success – trying to continue that success after the players responsible for it have graduated. Fortuna was senior-heavy last season, when the Huskies captured back-to-back section titles, but will now reload with underclassmen, including rising juniors Levi Nyberg and Brandon Gans.
The same goes for Eureka, which won the coin flip against Cardinal Newman last year for the right to advance to the CIF bowl series, where the Loggers fell in a close game to Menlo-Atherton. That team was also senior-heavy, though senior playmaker Lamarie Dunn is a key returner and Miles Meynell should be a dominant force on both sides of the line.
Miramonte has a few key returners who should have the Matadors in the mix, including both quarterbacks – AJ Fraser and Matt Meredith. Meredith can also play multiple other positions on the field with his athletic skill set, and Reed Callister is a top returner at receiver and defensive back. Junior Stradley Foutch is a name to watch for on the line.
The theme to this division, however, might be parity and the ability for multiple other teams to make a run. Those could include De Anza, especially after the transfer of athlete Darrion Davis from John Swett to go with senior standout Jalen Henderson, and an Encinal team that showed big-time movement in a positive direction under coach Keith Minor last year.
San Marin and a sure to-be battle-tested Alhambra team could also easily make some noise in the 2019 playoffs.
Contenders – Kennedy-Richmond, St. Bernard’s
Kennedy-Richmond is a team which has been gearing up for a title run over the past few years. Junior Jermaine Terry is a top national recruit, but the biggest returner is quarterback Camron Young, who makes things go for the Eagles. Kennedy also has one of the big impact transfers of the off-season, with running back Trey Baker coming over from El Cerrito. The Eagles could be young up front, but the return of junior interior lineman Sateki Lavulo should help solidify things.
Don’t rule out NCL powerhouse Middletown, who beat Salesian for last year’s Division V title. The Mustangs must develop a new starting quarterback, but Nico Barrio returns in the backfield along with standout linebacker and fullback Dillon Tingle, and Jared Pyzer is back to anchor both lines.
St. Bernard’s won its appeal to drop back into Division VI, after the Crusaders were initially placed in Division V due to competitive equity. According to coach Matt Tomlin, St. Bernard’s will be thin in terms of numbers, but the return of dual-threat quarterback Will Omey could make playoff life miserable for the rest of this bracket. Senior Talimaivao Fonoti also returns in the backfield, while Lane Thrap and Justin Hagler should be poised for huge seasons at receiver. Depth will be an issue on the lines, however, and staying healthy there will likely be the ‘X’ factor for the Crusaders.
Other teams to keep an eye on include St. Patrick-St. Vincent, which must find a way to replace the production of Akil Edwards at quarterback, and a Justin-Siena team which boasts numerous returners from a squad which knocked off Piedmont and challenged Del Norte in last year’s playoffs.
Contenders – Salesian, Stellar Prep
With the return of quarterback Ronald Robertson and man-child Princeton Toki on the line, Salesian has a bulls-eye on its chest after losing to Middletown in last year’s title game. But the Pride could be challenged by a Stellar Prep team which gave them a battle in last year’s playoffs, and is led by San Jose State commit Elijah Lawson.
A team which could spoil that rematch could be St. Helena, which returns three starters in the offensive backfield with junior quarterback Daniel Martinez, senior running back Cody DiTomaso and last year’s Prep2Prep NCS Freshman of the Year, running back and linebacker Ivan Robledo. Senior Caleb Granados is another key returner, at receiver and defensive back.