Prior to the 2018 season, Middletown coach Bill Foltmer said that he felt it could be the year in which an NCL team broke through to re-capture a section title. After a pair of losses during league play, it was indeed his Mustangs which defeated Salesian for the NCS Division V title.
Even then, Middletown had to avenge regular season losses to Fort Bragg and Kelseyville, the latter victory coming in a semifinal nail-biter. With the new divisional breakdown, half of the league is now in Division 6, while Willits, St. Helena, Clear Lake and Cloverdale head to Division 7. And when the playoffs do start, expect the NCL teams to pull for one another, after spending all summer against each other in passing league and then facing each other in opening scrimmages to prepare for the regular season.
“Coaching in this league is pretty special, because we all know each other so well, and as coaches we all get along and like coaching against one another,” Foltmer said. “There is certainly a level of familiarity and we like to see each other succeed.”
As to who will have the most success during league play in 2019, that is up in the air, though Middletown returns a handful of three-year varsity starters and Fort Bragg has the tools to light up the scoreboard. St. Helena, meanwhile, finished last year strong and is a trendy pick to potentially win the league, provided the Saints can manage a thin but talented roster. Kelseyville will always be tough and Cloverdale made great strides last season, so the league appears deep and a bit wide open for whichever team gets hot and plays best as the season progresses.
Teams are listed in alphabetical order, displaying records from last season.
CLEAR LAKE (2-8, 2-5)
The Cardinals look to improve upon a two-game campaign last season, and must replace the production of standout back Rodrigo Lupercio. Helping the cause could be senior quarterback Darius Ford, who combines a 6-foot-2 frame with some athleticism and arm strength. The multi-sport athlete averaged 14 points per game on the hardwood as a junior.
Rising junior AJ Adams figures to be somewhat of a workhorse in 2019, after seeing significant varsity reps as a sophomore. Senior Rolando Amaya, meanwhile, gives the Cardinals a bit of a known commodity after he was a big contributor in the slot as a junior and at free safety.
Clear Lake will boast some size up front, especially in the form of senior tackle Frank Weiler and senior guard Erik Nelson. Nelson and junior Treppa Marcks also roam the middle of the defense at the linebacker position.
The Cardinals open their season at Ferndale on Aug. 24.
CLOVERDALE (7-5, 4-3)
A playoff win over Arcata capped a successful year for the Eagles in 2018, who saw a four-win improvement from the previous season. Getting back to that point will likely require a big season from returning quarterback Shayne Turner, who is surrounded by a youthful roster.
“Shayne has to do it all. He proved he can handle the load last year, and we will be young this year, so he will be shouldering most of the load again this year,” said Cloverdale coach Greg Alexander. “His command of the offense and his football IQ have greatly improved from last season. He should have a great senior year.”
Turner threw for 1,403 yards and ran for 549 yards last season, accounting for 14 touchdowns in the process. He might not always be cemented into the quarterback position, however, with the additional development of junior quarterback Colby Furia, who Alexander singled out for displaying a strong work ethic over the off-season. Furia’s development could allow Turner to move around as needed, and the flexibility could be needed after the Eagles graduated 1,000-yard rusher Jone Wesele and all-everything back Cesar Buenrostro, who had over 800 yards receiving.
One player who Alexander also expects to help fill Buenrostro’s multi-faceted role is junior Logan Axell. Axell played quarterback on the junior varsity last season, but will fill multiple roles for Cloverdale in 2019, playing receiver, running back and linebacker. Up front, the Eagles will lean on two-way standout Daniel Lopez.
“Daniel was a two-way starter for us last year, and we are really looking for a breakout year from him,” Alexander said. “He has an unrelenting motor and we expect he will have an excellent senior season.”
When the Eagles turn to the air offensively, senior returner Jesus Maciel should be a key figure, after accumulating nearly 300 yards as a junior. And of course, Lopez is not the only key returner up front, as big 6-foot-6 junior Josh Lemley gained a full year of starting experience as a sophomore. Lemley moves out to left tackle this season, where he take on the role of handling one-on-one matchups in pass protection, and will look to use his length effectively from his defensive end spot as well.
“Jesus is such a smooth route runner with an excellent catch radius, and really improved his technique over the offseason,” Alexander said. “Josh had a great sophomore year and just continues to improve. He has a 4.0 grade-point average and watching him grow as a football player over the next two years is going to be a lot of fun. He is so instinctive on defense and can cause fits for an offense with his length. And if he develops in the weight room, I really believe he is a Division I offensive lineman.”
While they may be young across most of their roster, the Eagles are slightly up in numbers from last season, something which Alexander attributes to the efforts of his returning athletes.
“Last year gave us some momentum in building the program, and the players have been great ambassadors for the program, helping recruit the hallways in school,” Alexander commented. “We had a decent season last year, and the bar was raised. The challenge now is how this group can continue to raise that bar. The momentum is good, but this team needs to find its own identity.”
Cloverdale opens the season at Piner-Santa Rosa on Aug. 23.
FORT BRAGG (7-5, 5-2)
For the first time in three years, Fort Bragg coach Roy Perkins expects to air the ball out again, as the Timberwolves return arguably the top multi-sport athlete in the league at the quarterback position, a spot which boasted standouts such as Kaylor Sullivan and Lucas Triplett during a phenomenal three-year run from 2014-2016.
Senior Jullian Clavelle now holds the key to Perkins’ attack, after leading Fort Bragg to a four-win improvement last season. Clavelle threw for 1,043 yards and eight touchdowns while rushing for 508 yards and eight more scores as a junior. He then went on to earn all-league honors in basketball, baseball and track, winning both the high jump and triple jump at the NCL Championships despite spending most of his spring dedicated to baseball, which could be the top sport for the left-hander.
“Jullian is an exceptional athlete, throws the ball real well and will allow us to go back to our passing game this year,” Perkins said. “We are going to be real solid at the skill positions, but our big question marks are up front.”
Among those top returners at the receiver position is senior Wyatt Curti, another four-sport varsity athlete who had 21 catches for 387 yards last season. Seniors Seppe McKemy and Alex Whitehead bring additional speed to the offense, with Whitehead returning to the gridiron after an extended absence. Three-year starter Hayden Mitchell will anchor the Timberwolves up front on both lines, and will be expected to help a young unit grow up quickly.
“Our league is going to be very tough, and we hope to get better as our line develops,” Perkins added. “If we can throw the ball as well as I hope, it will keep us competitive. We will be a work in progress.”
Fort Bragg opens the season at home against Hoopa Valley on Aug. 23.
KELSEYVILLE (10-2, 7-0)
A 10-game winning streak and an outright North Central League title were great achievements for the Knights in 2018, but a loss at the hands of league rival Middletown left Kelseyville a game short of reaching last year’s section title game. The Knights may have graduated quarterback Alex Garcia, last year’s Offensive MVP of the league, but they do return Robert Chavez, last year’s Defensive MVP of the league who will also carry the load at running back for Kelseyville after being a first-team all-league selection on offense as well.
Junior Cory Holt could slide in nicely for Garcia, who got injured during the heart-breaking semifinal loss to Middletown last season. The Knights will have to compensate for the loss of many talented seniors off last year’s team, but one key name returning on the defensive side of the ball will be junior linebacker Chase Larsen, who earned all-league honors as a sophomore. Meanwhile, senior Roman Aceves should anchor the line after a strong junior season which also earned him all-league honors.
Kelseyville opens its season at home against San Marin on Aug. 23.
LOWER LAKE (2-8, 0-7)
Jay Jakubowski takes over for Justin Gaddy as head coach for the Trojans, and his biggest task will be replacing the productivity at quarterback, which last season featured first-team All-NCL signal-caller Elijah Hernandez. At the same time, Lower Lake welcomes back senior Aries Brooke, who led the team in rushing last season, and also returns two key receivers in Gavin Watson and Semaj Clark.
The Trojans struggled to a two-win season in 2018, but three losses came by seven points or fewer, and Lower Lake hung blow-for-blow with a much-improved St. Helena team in last year’s regular season finale. Even so, replacing Hernandez will be a tall task, and a vital one if the Trojans are going to show improvement.
Lower Lake opens the season at home on Aug. 23 against Carson-NV.
MIDDLETOWN (11-3, 5-2)
The Mustangs were a study in how to learn from earlier games in 2018, as Middletown avenged regular season losses to both Kelseyville and Fort Bragg during its run to the NCS Division V title last year. With a handful of returners from that team and coach Bill Foltmer still roaming the sidelines, there appears to be little reason why the Mustangs can’t add a league title this time around and make another deep run in the post-season.
Leading the way is a quartet of three-year varsity starters, seniors Nico Barrio, Dillon Tingle, Jared Pyzer and James Hernandez. Barrio is the team’s top rushing threat, while Tingle is the rock at linebacker and fullback, with the 6-foot-4 Pyzer and Hernandez doing the dirty work up front. At the same time, the Mustangs must replace the leadership of last year’s quarterback, RH Hess, along with the void created by the graduation of Drake Harbison and Nash Field.
“We have a lot of guys back, but we do have to replace the heart and soul guys from last year,” Foltmer said. “That being said, we will be right in the mix again this year.”
One player who will emerge appears to be quarterback Isaac Perez, who backed Hess up last season. Foltmer describes Perez as a very smart and athletic signal-caller, someone who is “always on top of things and very accurate in the passing game.” Senior wing and outside linebacker Cheydon Tom has also been looking good in off-season workouts, while junior Greyson Rockwell moves from tackle to tight end, and could be a threat in his new role.
The Mustangs currently carry 24 players on their varsity roster, and that number also includes a trio of veteran players up front with seniors Blake Schuster, Andres Martinez and Tyler Breiner. Add in junior Niko Elder, and Foltmer feels his group up front could be in for a strong season. Other juniors to watch include Tanner Pachie, Justin Hollingsworth, Tyler Crudo and Victor Martinez. Martinez led the junior varsity in rushing last season, while Pachie figures to contribute in the defensive secondary while providing behind Perez at quarterback.
Middletown opens the season taking on a much larger school, hosting Division 2 Napa on Aug. 23.
ST. HELENA (7-5, 4-3)
The end of the 2018 season carries over plenty of optimism into this year for the Saints, who won four more games than the previous year, including a playoff win over Hoopa Valley, and return the large majority of their playmakers.
“Luis (Robledo) was all we really lost in the backfield, and we gained a lot of experience,” said St. Helena coach Brandon Farrell. “The big challenge for us is that we will have a lot of two-way players, with only 17 on our varsity roster right now.”
The numbers may be low, but the talent level is high, especially in the offensive backfield, where junior quarterback Daniel Martinez is back along with senior Cody Ditomaso and sophomore Ivan Robledo, who was last year’s Prep2Prep NCS Freshman of the Year.
“Daniel looks so much more comfortable running things right now,” commented Farrell, who employs a split-back veer system on offense. “We feel really good in the backfield.”
Martinez is not the only impact junior returning for the Saints, with George Cutting back at tight end and weak-side linebacker. Cutting, along with Ditomaso and Robledo, also anchor the defense as a veteran corps of linebackers. All three will expect to be on the field full-time, and breaks may be difficult to come by.
Up front, St. Helena utilizes a strong side and weak side of the line, with six-foot senior Ryland Campos anchoring things from the strong tackle position and Rowan Knight back to bookend things with a pair of veterans from his weak tackle spot. Campos and Knight will also both be key as defensive ends, while junior Conlan Harrington is up from the junior varsity to slide into the strong guard spot.
Farrell does not rule out pulling up five or six more players from the junior varsity as the season develops, and of course staying healthy is going to key with the roster size. But St. Helena is focused on controlling its own work ethic and preparation rather than worrying about those possibilities.
“One of our big things is to make practices faster than games,” Farrell stated. “We need the games to go slower for our kids, and that’s the only way to make that happen.”
St. Helena opens the season at home aganst a perennially storng St. Patrick-St. Vincent team on Aug. 23.
WILLITS (2-9, 1-6)
Brandon Norbury leads the Wolverines into the 2019 season, and will do so with two-way standout Jacob Arms back for his senior season, heading into his third year as a starter. Arms is not only the team’s top returning threat from the slot as a receiver, but also its leading tackler from his outside linebacker position.
6-foot-1 senior Eric Colvard was productive as a receiver last year, but could be an answer to replacing DJ Buzzard at the quarterback position. Senior Gabe McGinnis, who was second on the team behind Arms in both rushing and receiving last year, also returns in the offensive backfield.
One of the major reasons why Willits could be optimistic about improvement in 2019 is the amount of veteran returners on the line. The Wolverines boast several seniors up front, including Austin Andrade, Gage Parker and Hunter Ford, who all stood out defensively as juniors.
Willits opens its season at home against McKinleyville on Aug. 30.