Bishop O'Dowd is the favorite to capture another WACC-Foothill title
Emma McLaughlin

WACC-Foothill Preview: Can anyone challenge O'Dowd for division title?

August 16, 2019

There are two new coaches in the West Alameda County Conference – Foothill Division this year with James Hodgins at Berkeley, and recently named Jerome Johnson at Piedmont, but there is no change at any of the four other schools, including defending champion Bishop O’Dowd and runner-up San Leandro.

After a 3-7 season in 2013, Bishop O’Dowd made a change and brought in Napoleon Kaufman, and although the former Raiders running back, current Raiders team chaplain, and pastor in Southeastern Alameda County, had coached in Pop Warner, he had no head coaching experience at the high school level.

It took Kaufman a couple of years to turn things around after the Dragons went 5-6 overall and 3-2 in WACC-Foothill action in 2014, and 7-6 and 3-2 in 2015, and although that team made it to the North Coast Section Division III semifinals, since then a lot has changed.

San Leandro under veteran Coach Brad Bowers went unbeaten in league both of those years and won the league, but since 2016 it’s been all O’Dowd, although San Leandro gave them a real tussle last year before falling 25-22 at home.

As for this year, O’Dowd will be the favorite again, and why not? If you count the last two league games of the 2015 season, the Dragons have won 16 straight WACC-Foothill games, a 2016 CIF state Division 5-AA Bowl Game championship, and they’ve played Marin Catholic three times for the NCS D3 title and won twice, in 2016 and last year in a 16-15 thriller.

O’Dowd will be the favorite but not without challengers besides San Leandro. Read on into the capsules to see how things stack up.

Teams are listed in alphabetical order, and include last year's records.

BERKELEY (0-10, 0-5)

The Yellowjackets have not had a .500 season since 2012 when they went 5-5 and actually won the league with a 5-0 record, but since then things have gone downhill and it came to a thud in a season last year in which they blanked.

A change was called for and the man that got the call is James Hodgins, who comes over from Berean Christian-Walnut Creek where he compiled a 36-30 record overall in six seasons and 20-13 in league in the Tri-County – Rock and Stone, and DAL – Foothill leagues combined.

Hodgins, the father of Oregon State junior wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins, and OSU sophomore defensive lineman Isaac Hodgins, who each starred for him at Berean Christian, was told at Berean the new Athletic Director they wanted to hire might want to coach football, so they gave him a head’s up. Hodgins interviewed for Berkeley and was offered the job, and although Berean didn’t get that AD, he had already committed to lead the Yellowjackets.

Hodgins never considered taking a hiatus from coaching to watch his sons play in college, but the Berkeley job makes it easier.

“They don’t have lights at Berean Christian so the games were on Saturday,” remarked Hodgins. “With games on Friday nights at Berkeley my Saturdays are free so I can get to games or at least watch them.”

Despite not winning a game last season, Hodgins inherits a team with one WACC – Foothill League First Team returner, a Second Team selection and two players that were Honorable Mention.

Jalen Amos, a 6-0, 220-pound defensive end is the All League First Team selection after anchoring the defense like he will likely do this year but with help from Second Team defense selection and 5-8, 180-pound junior linebacker and leading tackler Donte Searcy.

The two Honorable Mention returners from last season are junior 6-0, 230-pound two-way lineman DL Sitivani (Kyle) Gaunavinaka (Colata), and 6-0, 195-pound senior linebacker Kenny Varnardo.

Hodgins and his staff are still sorting things out at a lot of positions, but he likes what he sees.

“Those those four guys and also the team made a real effort in the spring and we have guys eligible that weren’t last year,” Hodgins said. “Some of them will be impact players.”

“We have a core group of guys that are very talented, good size and excellent speed, continued Hodgins. “Building work ethic is what we’re doing the most of right now.”

As form team goals the answer Hodgins gave was a little out of the box.

“Coming off an 0-10 season I can tell you this,” Hodgins said. “These guys will be for real and will change a lot of people’s minds once they see them play.”

“A big part of our program is building men and teaching players to take ownership of their program,” Hodgins continued. “So we let the players set their goals.”

It probably goes without saying that the initial goal is to win their first game, and a solid Redwood-Larkspur at home on Aug. 23 will be the opponent.

BISHOP O’DOWD (11-2, 5-0)

It’s a new year, and yes O’Dowd will be favored to win the West Alameda County Conference – Foothill Division after winning 16 straight games over the last three-plus years, but they lost a ton of talent and there will be challengers.

“I think the league is going to be tough,” Dragons Coach Napoleon Kaufman remarked. “There are a lot of good teams in this league and once you start to get into league it’s always rivalry. Every week everybody’s coming to play and every team is getting better and has kids returning.”

O’Dowd may have lost superstar running back Austin Jones, now at Stanford, and they have a new quarterback, but Kaufman and his staff have been in this position before, and they’ve continued to develop players to replace the losses to graduation, and this year looks no different, besides the Dragons do have five returning All WACC – Foothill selections, and an important piece of the puzzle returning from injury.

We might as well get it out of the way and talk about the coaching staff, and a few of the players whose family genes overflow with football

You’ll be hard pressed to find a coaching staff with more professional experience.

Kaufman was the 1990 Cal-Hi Sports Mr. Football State Player of the Year at Lompoc, then set the career rushing record at the University of Washington, and went on to play six years with the Oakland Raiders where he rushed for 4,792 yards and had 1,107 yards receiving.

The defensive coordinator is Raiders defensive back and Kaufman’s teammate Kenyan Branscomb, whose son Kenyan Branscomb Jr. was a standout at O’Dowd and a 2017 graduate, and who also has a son on this year’s team.

The wide receivers coach, JJ Stokes, caught a few balls himself in a pro career mostly as a member of the San Francisco 49ers, but also with the Jacksonville Jaguars and New England Patriots.

The third coach on Kaufman’s staff with NFL experience is running backs coach “Touchdown” Tommy Vardell. He was a star at Stanford where he got his nickname, who went on to a nine-year NFL career with the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers.

Besides Branscomb, Kaufman and Vardell have sons who will be a big part of the Dragons potential success, but the starting quarterback is the one who has a household name in football circles in his family, and that’s 6-1, 185-pound junior Jesse Madden, the grandson of legendary Raiders coach and television broadcaster John Madden. The Dragons new signal-caller looked good in a 7-on-7 against Marin Catholic last month and even better last week in practice.

“Ever since we got Jesse he sat behind Mo Flynn and watched him win a section title, and now he’s hungry, and he’s doing an excellent job of getting better and better each week,” Kaufman said. “And the kid, he’s a football player. Football is his life.”

One of the primary receivers for Madden will be Colton Vardell, Tommy’s son. The 6-5, 225-pound senior was used mostly on defense last season where he was named All WACC – Foothill First Team as a defensive end after recording 78 tackles and six sacks, plus he had two fumble recoveries, forced a fumble and blocked a punt.

Another primary receiver that is returning from injury is Sterling Stokes (no relation to JJ). At 6-4, 210-pounds he’s a load, and looked good at practice last week accelerating off the line and pulling in the football. After coming back from injury last season he had 18 receptions for 323 yards and two TDs in six games.

A player that returns after a big season on defense, looked good on the field, and may see more action at wide receiver, is Malachi Ward. The 6-0, 170-pound senior was All League Second Team at defensive back after finishing with 98 tackles, four interceptions and two fumble recoveries.

It should come as no surprise that the head coach’s son, Nehemiah Kaufman, is going to replace Jones as the primary running back. At 5-9, 165-pounds he’s just about the same size his father was in high school. Last season in limited action he rushed for 151 yards and two TDs and had another TD receiving.

“Nehemiah is great,” said Tommy Vardell. He’s fast, hits the hole quick and is explosive.”

Another player to look for is two-way standout 5-10, 180-pound junior Ethan Ford. As a slotback he had 149 yards rushing and one touchdown, 291 yards receiving and four TDs, and as a defensive back Ford had 43 tackles and two sacks.

Another defensive back that returns after being named All League Second Team is Jayden Davis. The 6-3, 190-pound senior had 85 tackles, three sacks and a fumble recovery.

Having what looks like a solid offense and secondary, it’s in the trenches where games are won and lost, and Kaufman knows that very well.

“We’re going to play stifling defense and our offensive line is going to move people,” was Kaufman’s response to the plan of attack this season, and with respect to the offensive line, he looks like he has the right formula for protecting Madden and opening up holes for Nehemiah.

Adam Johnson, a 6-1, 280-pound senior and All League First Team selection last season will anchor the line along All League Second Team honoree Francisco Romero, a 6-1 259-pound senior.

As for newcomers Kaufman had some players he’s looking to break out this season. Sipili Founa is a 6-5, 210-pound junior that can play tight end and defensive end. Ryzon Norris is a 6-1, 170-pound senior that plays wide receiver and defensive back. A third player Kaufman thinks could break out is Kaleb Branscomb, the son of Kenyan Branscomb.

When you’ve had the kind of success in football the coaching staff at O’Dowd has had at all levels, the ultimate goal is pretty obvious.

“Our goals never change,” Kaufman said. “Since I got here we want to win a state championship, so that’s basically it.”

Other teams have more returning All League players but O’Dowd has talent that goes beyond season ending honors from last year.

The road to another potential CIF Bowl Game championship begins on Aug. 30 at Las Lomas.

CASTRO VALLEY (3-7, 2-3)

Denny Molzen, a 1999 Castro Valley graduate who played on the line for the Trojans, begins his fourth year at his alma mater’s helm, and after inheriting a team that only won one game and was blanked in league in 2015, he’s slowly been starting to turn things around, and last year’s record overall and in league matches the 2014 season’s record.

“We’re getting there. It’s been a long process,” Molzen remarked. “We have seniors coming back and we’re hoping this is the year we can push it over the top and make a run.”

One of those seniors Molzen has is one of the kind of players the former guard said he “likes to take under his wing,” and that’s the league’s top returning lineman, and the only player to be All WACC – Foothill on both offense and defense, Marcus Miller. The 6-4, 280-pound senior tackle and defensive end was First Team on offense and Second Team on defense last season where he had 11 tackles for loss, three sacks and a forced and recovered fumble.

“Miller is a rare talent, loves everything about the game, and will anchor both OL and DL for the third year in a row,” Molzen said. “Voted team captain, heart and soul of our team, and the scary thing is he in only 16-years old. Huge upside and will only get better.”

The other All League returner is only a junior and that is Michael Lewis. The 5-9, 190-pounder was Honorable Mention after rushing for 568 yards and six TDs, with 100-plus yard games against San Leandro and Bishop O’Dowd.

“Michael is going to be a stud,” Molzen said emphatically. “It took a while for him to get going as a sophomore but he’s going to handle the rock and we’re going to run him a lot this year. He’s a physical runner with good vision, and was just voted him as a team captain and that tells you what the kids think of him.”

Molzen is hoping last year’s starting quarterback, 5-9, 185-pound junior Cameron Calvillo, who was just cleared after injuring his knee last season, will be ready for game two against Hayward, but for the season opener against Dublin on Aug. 23, Molzen said “there’s still competition at quarterback for the starting job.”

At wide receiver 5-10, 170-pound senior Wesley Breault will be one of two primary receivers.

Dillon Ochoa, a 5-10, 180-pound senior will anchor the linebacking corps and according to Molzen “will be our quarterback on defense.”

Senior Vincent Rivera will be the top returning defensive back, but two newcomers up from the JV, junior Colin Thompson and sophomore Zach Sandoval, should make an impact at defensive back.

“Castro Valley hasn’t won a playoff game since my senior year in 1999 or a league title since 1998,” Molzen said. “The ultimate goal is to be practicing on Thanksgiving, but realistically it’s to make the playoffs.”

ENCINAL (8-4, 3-2)

The Jets enter their second year in the WACC – Foothill Division after being moved up from the Shoreline Division last year, after winning the Shoreline in 2017 and making a nice run in the NCS Division 3 playoffs.

It’s also year two in the tenure of veteran head coach Keith Minor, who led the Jets to a very respectable third place finish, and in their two losses neither were blowouts after they fell 21-6 to Bishop O’Dowd and 18-13 at San Leandro.

Minor started his head coaching career at Balboa-San Francisco (2003-2008) and from there he went to St. Mary’s from 2009-2016 as the head coach before assisting in 2017 at Berkeley.

On paper, Minor has the largest number of All League returners with a total of nine, three on the First Team, four on the Second Team and two Honorable Mention.

As for the skill positions not only does Encinal return the top passing combination in the league, but they have two impact running backs returning as well among last year’s All League selections.

David Romero-Reinholz, a 5-10, 187-pound senior and All League First Team honoree last year is back after passing for 1,626 yards and 16 TDs with eight interceptions. He was also 15 of 18 on PATs.

“We think David is going to have a good year for us,” Minor remarked. “My offense is like a hot rod, a race car, the more you drive it the better you get, and he’s understanding the offense better, and has better command, and that should also lead to less interceptions.”

The primary receiver this year for Romero-Reinholz just like last year will be All League First Team wide receiver Teddy Oliver. Last season the 6-0, 175-pound senior had 28 pass receptions for 596 yards and five touchdowns. Oliver will also play defensive back and do some kickoff and punt returning like he did last season.

“Everybody loves Teddy,” Minor remarked. “Teddy is a great football player. He’s consistent, works hard and takes his wide receiver position very seriously.”

The young man Minor calls the best player on the team is 6-foot, 215 senior Jezaiah Naigulevu. The returning All League First Team linebacker led the WAAC – Foothill in tackles with 133 tackles (11 for loss), four sacks and a forced fumble. He also had some carries at running back but this year Minor plans to use him as a tight end.

“After leading the league in tackles Jezaiah will most definitely anchor the defense,” Minor said. “This year we want to get him on the field more on offense. You can’t have your best player drinking water on the sidelines when the offense is on the field.”

The four All League Second Team returners are 6-0, 245-pound offensive lineman Simeon Mitchell, who will also help anchor the defensive line, 5-9, 190-pound senior Archie Cole (749 yards rushing, 10 TDs), who also plays linebacker, 5-11, 228-pound senior defensive lineman William Ealelei, who also plays on the offensive line, and 5-7, 1880-pound junior defensive back Kierr Stewart.

The returning Honorable Mention selections are 6-1, 210-pound junior tight end/defensive end Siave Pedro and 5-10, 185-pound running back/defensive back Isaiah Smith. He was second on the team in rushing with 323 yards and two TDs.

“All six of those guys have done a great job and gotten better,” Minor said. “But Isaiah Smith and Vincent Nunley are two kids we expect to have huge years.

Minor and his staff felt the 6-1, 170-pound Nunley should have been All WACC – Foothill after finishing with 66 tackles and three pass interceptions as a defensive back last season.

“We’re just going to play good football all season, error free, no mistakes, all the clichés,” Minor said regarding the outlook for the season. “Getting better as people and getting better as players.”

“We were a couple of breaks away from winning league last season,” Minor continued. “When you have a young team just coming up from Shoreline, a lot of times you learn lessons the hard way and mistakes cost you. This year we feel we can challenge for the league title, and that’s a goal, and we want to go deep in the new D5 playoffs. We feel we can win it all.”

Defending Division IV champion Fortuna as well as Moreau Catholic-Hayward and San Marin-Novato are in D5 but Encinal certainly looks like one of the teams to beat.

The journey begins on Aug. 23 on the road at Washington-Fremont.

PIEDMONT (5-6, 1-4)

When previous coach John Trotman had to resign with less than a month left before the beginning of the season due to taking a job with the City and County of San Francisco that would be a big boost for him and his family but would preclude him from coaching, the administration at Piedmont turned to Defensive Coordinator Jerome Johnson to take over as the interim coach.

Johnson was going to join the staff of Trotman this season as the defensive coordinator, a job he had on the 2016 McClymonds-Oakland team that won a CIF state Division 5-A Bowl Game championship.

“When it was announced he (Trotman) took the position the AD Alphonso Powell opened the job up for interviews, and he asked me to interview,” Johnson remarked. “The panel making the decision, including the principal, the parents advocate, and former and current coaches, chose me.”

He certainly looks like a fit. The New Orleans native got his start in coaching at Granite Bay in the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section, and was on staff at O’Dowd besides McClymonds. He retired after 20-years as an IT engineer at Hewlett-Packard and is now self employed in the real estate business, meaning he has the time to dedicate to the program.

Johnson inherits what looks like a mighty task with the graduation of a lot of the top players and only one WACC – Foothill League selection from last year returning, albeit its 6-6, 265-pound senior First team offensive lineman Patch Selna, who will also anchor the defensive line.

“Patch is one of the hardest workers I’ve seen, and he’s really matured,” Johnson said. “His footwork is phenomenal and his only goal is to get a little faster with a quick twitch.”

From that point on Johnson said most all the positions are still up for grabs and a significant number of kids vying for starting jobs are newcomers.

“We have a lot of juniors up from JV last year,” Johnson said.

Two boys up from JV, juniors Tommy McNeil and Cal Burna are still being evaluated and competing for the starting quarterback job.

Two others on the JV last year, juniors Brain Cain and Alex Hilton, will be primary at their position, Cain at running back and Hilton at wide receiver.

Returning senior Georgie Brayer will lead the linebacking corps, but a newcomers up from the JV, juniors Jet Moxley will help.

Most of the defensive back positions are up in the air but another newcomer up from the JV, junior Joe Hempeck, will be the outside edge defender at strong safety.

One final newcomer Johnson wanted to mention is Andy Melian, a 6-3, 265-pound junior that will help Selna anchor both lines.

“We have a small realistic goal to win our league, but our goal is to compete and put a stamp on the next level for next year in what is a rebuilding year.”

The first chance to stamp one into the win column comes on August 23 at Justin-Siena-Napa.

SAN LEANDRO (6-6, 4-1)

Head Coach Brad Bowers begins his 19th season at the Pirates helm and he always seems to field a competitive team, and this season should be no different.

San Leandro has no WACC – Foothill League First Team selections returning but they do have some very solid returners and some new faces as well.

The top two returners are seniors Hunter Thompson and Osaro Aihie.

Thompson is a 6-2, 235-pound two-way lineman and All League Second Team offensive lineman.

“He’ll be the rock on the line,” Bowers said of his center Hunter.

Aihie is a 6-1, 220-pound linebacker that was All League Second Team after recording 76 tackles and two sacks last season. He split time as the primary running back and rushed for team highs of 569 yards and seven TDs, but this season he will be the main ball carrier for the Pirates.

The third All League honoree from last year is 5-10, 175-pound senior Amari Roberson. He was Honorable Mentions as a defensive back after recording 55 tackles (nine for loss) with a forced fumble and recovery. Roberson is also the top returning wide receiver and had 10 receptions for 154 yards and two touchdowns.

It seems like only yesterday, but it was in his third season that Bowers and his Pirates challenged mighty De La Salle, came into the game 12-0, and in a mud bowl at the Oakland Coliseum they came as close as anyone has, and gave up the least amount of points in a title game to De La Salle in 27 straight years the Spartans have won an NCS championships, when they lost 14-0 in the Division 4-A championship.

The leader of that team was a dual-threat quarterback that was also a standout at defensive back, Pernell Cordier. The new quarterback will be DJ Bryant, and with Cordier now on Bowers' staff the past few years, he will have the 6-0, 172-pound junior to help develop over the next two seasons.

Bryant saw some action at quarterback and wide receiver last season and had two TDs passing, two rushing and one receiving, but it was on defense as the outside safety that he shined as a sophomore after recording 66 tackles and making two pass interceptions.

“We haven’t had a quarterback that played both ways since Cordier and we’re looking for big things from DJ,” remarked Bowers.

A player Bowers says will help Thompson anchor the line is 6-0, 230-pound sophomore Jared Palega.

“We brought him up as a freshman and he started and now he’s ready to go,” Bowers said of Palega.

Bowers has three newcomers he feels could be impact players that are all seniors and are also all transfers. Steven Henry II will play running back, wing and cornerback, Cory Hayes will play mostly cornerback and some wide receiver, and Dylan Matoza will be a wide receiver.

Over the years San Leandro has seen its share of title games against De La Salle and playoffs appearances, and the last two years the Pirates have been in the Division I playoffs where each year they won their first game before bowing out, last season in a 17-7 loss to California-San Ramon. However this year with realignment things are different, and San Leandro has been placed in Division II along with Clayton Valley-Concord and Campolindo-Moraga.

Asked about what the outlook was for this season Bowers had this to say.

“We had a hodgepodge on the line last year, but while the line might be young this year, they’re farther along and that is a key.”

“As for specific goals our goal is to win league and get way farther in the playoffs,” continued Bowers. “An NCS championship has eluded us since we’ve been in D1 but now in D2 we’d like to maybe match up with Clayton Valley for the title.”

The road to that possible match-up begins in Aug. 23 with Foothill-Pleasanton.

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