The story leading up to the new football season in the Mt. Hamilton Division seems to be that most schools are lacking players. From Pioneer all the way up to perennial favorite Oak Grove, coaches are stuck with rosters smaller than they are accustomed to. While explanations vary, one common necessity will be staying healthy. Lack of depth on rosters will push teams into a bind if starters sustain injuries.
Jay Braun’s Oak Grove team, which ran the table in division play last season, is still expected to take home the division title, and they’ll seek a deeper postseason run after last season’s playoff campaign ended with a sudden loss to Mitty.
Live Oak head coach Mike Gemo pointed to his team, Piedmont Hills, Pioneer and Santa Teresa as the other contenders in the division.
But, he added: “Nothing’s going to happen until someone beats Oak Grove.”
Leigh (8-3, 6-1)
Leigh is coming off back-to-back 8-3 seasons, with last season ending in a playoff loss to Serra. It was a successful campaign, per head coach Kyle Padia, though he will have to regroup having lost several key starters.
Gone is his starting quarterback and his two leading tacklers. And keeping on pace with the rest of the league, Padia is fielding a small team – the smallest he’s had in five years.
“Normally we’re at 35-40 [players],” he said. “This year we’ve got 30 players, and 2 are ineligible for now. It’s kind of been the trend. We’ve been losing players.”
Leading the charge will be Tevita Pahulu, an offensive and defensive lineman who was last season’s Junior of the Year in the division.
Padia expects Pahulu to “dominate on both sides of the ball.”
Kyle Albert will take over under center as a junior with no previous varsity experience. He’ll be primarily targeting Mason Peterson, the wide receiver who was Second Team All-League last season.
Despite the consensus that Oak Grove is the favorite heading into the season, Padia sees the upcoming season as a “real competitive” one in the league.
“There’s a little more parity through the rest of the league,” he said. “We’ll have to fight for every win.”
Lincoln (4-6, 1-6)
Last season started off on a strong note for Lincoln, which won its first two non-league games and then thrashed Willow Glen in the league opener.
But that would be its lone league win of the campaign, as Lincoln lost its next six before beating San Jose to end the season.
It was a disappointing debut in the Mt. Hamilton Division for head coach Kevin Collins’ team, which came into the 2016 season fresh off a championship in the Santa Teresa Division.
The Lions may be in for a tough 2017 as well. Their top four rushers last season were seniors, as were their top two receivers.
Live Oak (9-3, 5-2)
Coming off a 9-3 season and its first playoff win in a few years, in a year where it lost a few key players, Live Oak will look to build on the momentum in the 2017 season.
The Acorns will return three offensive lineman as well as junior quarterback Jonathan Singleton, who was the league's Most Outstanding Offensive Player in 2016.
“Everything runs through him,” said head coach Mike Gemo.
Cole Davis will also return to the team as the lead running back for his senior season, and also figures to play some linebacker. Brock Barnes is a top defensive returner at linebacker, after racking up 101 tackles last year, while senior Jack Rodrigues will anchor both lines.
Gemo said the biggest challenge will be depth. In a school of around 1,000 students, Live Oak will field a team of roughly 35-36 varsity players.
Additionally, the team lost playmakers in running back Jacob Ryder, linebackers Tyler Souza, Zach Heffernan and defensive back Alex Corneho. Other players who will help fill the void include running backs Connor Dietz and AJ Gustaveson, along with receivers Khy Rodriguez and Christian Guary.
"Last year's experience helps a ton," Singleton added. "Last year, we had to adjust to varsity speed, but there were a ton of seniors to help. This year, we get to be leaders."
Oak Grove (8-3, 7-0)
Last season ended abruptly for Oak Grove, which finished undefeated in league play but lost in the first round of the Open Division playoffs to Mitty.
“As a program, we set high goals here,” head coach Jay Braun said. “We’re always trying to win it all. We didn’t have that opportunity last year.”
He continued: “We’ll use it as motivation to push us harder, be better prepared.”
Oak Grove still enters the 2017 season as favorites in the Mt. Hamilton division, but even it hasn’t been immune to a drop-off in depth. Their top two running backs, Jarmar Julien and Maurice Washington, transferred out of the program.
“You don’t ever like to see that happen,” Braun said.
But the silver lining is, he added, that it gives others an opportunity.
“Football is more than one man game,” he said. “It’s almost like a blessing. Instead of being reliant on one guy, now that they’re out of picture, you have to look at mirror and say, ‘We have to get it done, we have to count on each other more.’”
Braun believes the team is stronger as a collective group with the understanding that no one has to play a bigger role. And, they’ve had plenty of time to scheme.
“We lost them early enough that we’ve had time to prepare, put pieces in place, make adjustments. Had we lost them before the St. Francis game, it would’ve been different. It gave us whole summer to train, to put new guys in leadership roles.”
Running backs Gabe Chavez and Elijah Dominguez and wide receiver Miles Hemingway will shoulder the load offensively for a team that has its offensive line still largely in place, including senior Romario Farias and sophomore Marcos Alvarez. Junior Isaiah Esparza steps in at quarterback.
"We don't have the size this year like we have had before, but we have worked very hard in the off-season," Farias said. "We still expect to make an impact."
But, like other schools in the division, Oak Grove is down to a 34-35 man roster, which means the perennial favorite could be vulnerable once depth comes into play.
Piedmont Hills (6-5, 4-3)
Matt Kiesle was “satisfied” with the season Piedmont Hills had last season, which ended with a loss to Bellarmine in the first round of the CCS Playoffs.
But he, too, faces a challenge with depth. The team is right around 30 players, which means a lot of doubling up on positions. Kiesle, who enters his 20th season as the head coach and 31st overall at the school, attributes it to the tough academics at Piedmont Hills that has rendered some players ineligible, as well as changing demographics at the school.
Piedmont Hills will be led by running back and linebacker Patrick Jiminez, their leading tackler last season, Deonte Taylor, who will play running back and corner back, and Rafael Alvarado, a wide receiver and defensive end who Kiesle called a “very special player.” They’ll have to replace the production of Richard Fedelin Jr., who caught over 200 passes in his high school career, though senior Courtney Lane figures to help in that department, along with some newcomers from a frosh-soph program which has gone 19-1 in the past two years.
With a small team — both literally and figuratively — Piedmont Hills will have to make up for it with speed.
“We’re not very big,” Kiesle said. “We’re not going to match up size-wise with hardly anybody. As a team, we’re pretty fast. Our key is we have a lot of guys who can be playmakers.”
He added that though Oak Grove remains the team to beat, talk around the league is the division could be tight.
“Every team is going to be pretty competitive,” Kiesle said. “Lot of excitement with our league right now. It’s wide open. Things could change week-to- week.”
Pioneer (1-9, 1-6)
After its top two running backs suffered injuries in the second game of the season, Pioneer never recovered in 2016, finishing its campaign with a 1-9 record. But head coach Eric Perry takes pride in the fact that his team “didn’t get killed in games.”
“We were lucky enough to beat Lincoln in week 10,” he said. “We can use that as momentum going into next season.”
Still, Pioneer has its work cut out, with a large graduating class and a roster of 35 players.
Carrying the load will be quarterback Ryan Wallace and tight end Devonte Matthew. Eddie Orozco will likely be the featured back.
“It’s just a matter of staying healthy,” Perry said. “Our numbers are a little low.”
Pioneer will also be going back to a more familiar scheme in 2017. After switching from a spread offense to the Wing-T last year, the Mustangs are back to the spread this fall.
"I spent a lot of time on the weekends this spring and summer getting receivers out with me to throw," Wallace commented. "We knew we had to prepare extra for the coming season."
Santa Teresa (6-5, 3-4)
Last season was just about par for the course for Santa Teresa, where it went 6-4 in the regular season and lost to Milpitas in the first round of the CCS playoffs.
The goal every year, said head coach Nick Alfano, is to make the playoffs, and they “played [Milpitas] fairly tough for what we could do.”
Despite losing some important seniors, Alfano feels good about what he has this season.
“We’re changing things up offensively, and defensively trying to get more explosive players,” he said. “We’re young defensively, and experience is lacking a little bit. But we’ll be faster than we were last year.”
Santa Teresa will have a new quarterback in junior Ethan Janto, who is converting to the position after two seasons at wide receiver. His skillset will allow for more flexibility in the offense.
“He’s a good leader,” Alfano said of Janto. “He’s athletic. We’re going to both run and throw that year. Primarily been a run team in the past, so we’ll be more balanced at 50-50.”
Also leading the offense will be tight end Andrew Schultheis, who is a 6-foot- 2 and 220 pounds, and Darius Van Den Akker, a speedy wide receiver who finished first in the 200 meters in the CCS Trials last season. Overall, Alfano hopes Santa Teresa can be a factor in the division.
“I like to think that we can be competitive,” he said. “Our kids will be ready to play. Hopefully we can gain some experience.”
Westmont (11-2, 7-0)*
The Mt. Hamilton Division will have a newcomer next season in Westmont, which is coming off an improbably successful 2016 campaign that saw it reach the Division IV championship game, where it fell to Soledad.
Westmont went 7-0 in Santa Teresa Division league play last season en route to the division title and reached a section title game for the first time since 2004.
“To come all the way here, it’s pretty astounding,” head coach Mark Kaanapu told the San Jose Mercury News before the title game last November. “But, like everything, because the kids just work hard and they believe in what we’re trying to do, when those two things happen, you have a chance to be successful.”
They’ll be in for a challenge in a tougher division, especially with last year’s star running back, Nolan Berry, having graduated, as did stellar linebacker DJ Monroe and quarterback Johnnie Phillips.
*Denotes record in Santa Teresa division last season.
Records displayed are from 2016 season. Teams are displayed in alphabetical order.