Last year, Las Lomas ran roughshod over the Valley Division of the Diablo Athletic League, so the Knights were sent packing, headed up to the Foothill Division and replaced by Northgate, which went winless in the upper division last season.
With Las Lomas gone from the equation, last year’s runner-up gets the bulls-eye to start the year, especially with the number of returners to the Benicia lineup. The Panthers finished one game behind the Knights last season in the league standings, but the nature of the loss was enough to keep them from getting bumped up as well, despite the fact this division will have seven teams while the Foothill Division will have just five.
But even though Benicia has tons of talent back from last year’s team, veteran head coach Craig Holden is keeping the season in perspective.
“We are excited about the mix of youth and senior leadership on our team, and we are having fun right now,” Holden said. “We do expect to win a league title, but we have to take it game by game. We still need to get better and expect a battle each time out.”
Northgate coach Ben Ballard saw how rough the upper division was on his team last season, and the change of scenery is welcome for a Broncos’ program which won just one game in 2018. But while Ballard now has high expectations for his own group, he is also quick to recognize the other talent around the league.
“Benicia will be tough. Craig (Holden) has a good crew there,” Ballard said. “Concord will also be improved, and Paul (Reynaud) is doing a good job over there.”
Teams are listed in alphabetical order, with records displayed from last season.
BENICIA (8-4, 5-1)
It’s hard for Holden to not be excited about his Panthers’ prospects heading into the 2019 season. After finishing one game behind Las Lomas in last year’s league standings and routing Alhambra in the first round of the section playoffs, Benicia returns the majority of its playmakers, including some young talent which will be making an impact for years to come.
“We are pretty good right now, pretty talented with some more talent coming up,” Holden said. “We will probably go to the upper division next year.”
Leading the way offensively is returning quarterback Kameron Lane, an Eastern Washington commit and dual-threat signal-caller who accounted for over 2,000 yards and 28 touchdowns from scrimmage.
“Kameron is an athlete. In my 19 years, he is the first I have had who will be a three-year starter at quarterback,” Holden said. “He knows the game plan every day. He’s also scary in open space and throws a nice ball.”
He is rejoined in the backfield by his brother, Kendall Lane, and Maurian Burrell, a pair of seniors who combined to rush for nearly 1,000 yards last season and according to Holden will help “carry the weight offensively.”
Up front for the Panthers will be a deep group of 10 linemen who will rotate on both sides of the ball. That includes senior Derek Campbell and junior Jacob Dortch, who will both start on the defensive side of the ball but rotate with the offensive group.
“It’s a nice luxury to have, nice to look out and see so many kids who are bigger than me,” Holden commented. “It’s great to have so many kids ready to contribute.”
Speaking of ready to contribute, the Panthers also benefit from a talented group of underclassmen, led by sophomore Dominic Spivey, who started at linebacker as a freshman and racked up 105 tackles, including 14 for a loss. Holden pulled up two more freshman in Week Seven of last season, meaning that outside linebacker Janari Boone and 6-foot-4, 230-pound defensive end Miles Bailey already have varsity experience heading into their sophomore campaigns. Bailey had three sacks in the defeat to Las Lomas last fall.
“I’m not a guy who normally likes to pull so many guys up,” Holden said. “But those are the best guys at each of their positions.”
Benicia opens the season at Pinole Valley on Aug. 30.
BEREAN CHRISTIAN (5-5, 4-2)
Tim Schultz takes over as head coach after the successful tenure of James Hodgins, who left to take the head job at Berkeley. The Eagles have an increase in numbers this season at the varsity level, and also return a few key contributors who earned all-league honors in 2018.
Those returners, however, do not include three players who would have been their best three on the field, when running back Justice Jackson and offensive lineman Jack Seelye both transferred to Liberty after earning first-team all-DAL honors last year and quarterback Kyle Davidson moved to New Jersey after leading the Eagles to four straight offensive outbursts of 50 or more points late last year, including a playoff win over Ferndale.
One big returner for Berean, though, is tight end and linebacker Dylan Oliver, who earned all-league honors on the defensive side of the ball last season and should anchor the unit this year.
Berean Christian opens its season at home on Aug. 24 against Skyline-Oakland.
COLLEGE PARK (4-6, 2-4)
The Falcons were young last season, so despite another coaching change, College Park could be on the rise in 2019.
Back offensively are some key pieces from last year’s team, such as senior running back Aaron Hamant and junior running back Jeremiah Jack. More returners dot the defensive side of the ball, including junior outside linebacker Gabe Messick and senior strong safety Jackson Keck.
Big junior Colton Bonnington and senior Devin Orth are a couple of returners on the line who should help the transition for head coach Mark Spinelli.
College Park opens its season at Alhambra on Aug. 23.
CONCORD (4-6, 3-3)
The Minutemen might be low in numbers heading into the season, but coach Paul Reynaud points to the return of quarterback Ryan Murphy and middle linebacker Adrian Todorov as two big reasons for optimism as Concord looks to get off to a fast start in 2019.
“Having experience at those two positions are good things to have,” Reynaud commented. “We might not have a ton of kids, but the kids we’ve got have a great attitude.”
Murphy, who also starts at safety and averages nearly 40 yards per punt, threw for close to 1,600 yards with 13 touchdowns as a junior, and should have a solid group of receivers at his disposal, despite losing his top five targets from last season. Leading the way for that group is senior Anthony Romero, while juniors Simeon Kirov and Sam Daynes should both be consistent contributors. Todorov will also help take on the load at running back, filling in for now-graduated standout Austin Williams.
Concord has a somewhat friendly start to the season, opening against Dougherty Valley and Arroyo teams which were also both hit hard by graduation, before welcoming a stout Middletown team and opening league play against College Park.
“The goal is to get the record back up and get back to the playoffs,” said Reynaud, referring to a Concord program which reached the playoffs in nine straight years from 2008-2016, winning 10 or more games in four of those seasons. “That should encourage more kids to come back out.”
MT. DIABLO (0-10, 0-6)
Head coach Donald James returns for his second season after taking over a decimated roster last year. The Red Devils won’t be high in numbers at the upper level, but overall numbers in the program are back up a bit, and he has a couple key returners.
Junior linebacker David Clark earned first-team all-DAL honors as a sophomore, and will anchor the defense with a year under his belt. Leading the secondary behind Clark will be senior Brandon Paillet, another all-league returner who should be an impact player on both sides of the ball.
Mt. Diablo opens its season at John Swett on Aug. 23.
NORTHGATE (1-9, 0-5 Foothill Division)
After a rough season in the Foothill Division, the Broncos get a new lease on their playoff hopes, especially with 17 key returners who either started or had significant playing time last season, following a year in which Northgate finished the year with only four seniors on the field.
“We get back our three main guys we leaned on heavily last year, and we are pushing them hard this year,” Ballard commented.
Those three guys would include the team’s top receiver, senior Nathan Wu, who also plays cornerback and is a three-sport athlete. They also include six-foot, 190-pound running back Jonathan Campbell, who will also be featured at strong safety, and tight end Eric Prough, a 6-foot-3 dual-sport standout who should also shine at linebacker. Prough, who also plays baseball, and Wu both carry grade-point averages above 4.0 and are receiving attention from a number of small colleges.
“We are pretty senior heavy this year, and have tons of multi-sport athletes as well,” Ballard added. “That means we have a lot more experience on the field and are better prepared for the year ahead.”
Senior Jackson Malakoff will start at quarterback for the Broncos, and will benefit from another returning starter on the line in front of him, senior Francisco Espinoza, who anchors the interior and also wrestles in the winter. Max Berrien is another key returner at outside linebacker.
Northgate opens its season at Hercules on Aug. 23.
YGNACIO VALLEY (2-7, 1-5)
A strong cast of returning playmakers has coach Bryan Shaw optimistic about the coming season, though he acknowledges that a lot of growth will need to happen during the season.
“After last season, we started in the weight room in January and had a great turn-out through the spring,” Shaw said. “Our line will be young and big, and will look to develop chemistry during the year.”
Senior Julian Buelna takes over at quarterback for the Warriors, after not playing his junior year. He should benefit from a cast of skill players who can fill multiple roles on the field. That includes Sirlynn McCoy, an all-purpose athlete who Shaw expects to play nearly every position. Senior Arionte Mouton also returns in the slot and at defensive back, as does senior Alan Lloyd, who will play both receiver and in the secondary.
The defensive backfield should get a boost from transfer Giovanni Lujano, a senior who had four interceptions and was an all-league selection at Tennyson last season. Meanwhile, tight end and linebacker Fernando Verduzco was be one of the Warriors’ top all-around players at 6-foot-3, 255 pounds. Junior running back Angelo Castellano should help round out the skill positions.
Ygnacio Valley opens its season at home on Aug. 30 against John Swett.