Petaluma combining new identity, tradition

Petaluma starting quarterback Spencer Neve. (CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat, 2010)

By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Returning only one starter, Petaluma isn’t expected to repeat the Sonoma County League’s first undefeated football season in 14 years. Yet the Trojans don’t lack for excitement with a large turnout of players giving first-year coach Rick Krist plenty of bodies to mold into a competitive team.

“We’re just trying to create our own identity and continue the Petaluma tradition,” Krist said.

Replacing an Empire coaching legend — Steve Ellison retired with 204 wins in 31 years at the school — is challenging enough for Krist. Still, the longtime assistant — 20 seasons with Ellison — is confident his players will grasp the triple-option offense Petaluma has run for years and play solid team defense. Ellison has helped in the transition, stopping by practice on occasion to talk with players and offer thoughts on football.

While no drastic changes are in the works, Krist wants Petaluma to pass more. Depth in experienced defensive players is a concern, so the Trojans must stay healthy.

To that end, Krist put in a more intensive offseason conditioning program. The notable addition was a five-week camp led by trainers from the Coast Guard base at Two Rock.

“They really pushed us. It will help us a lot in terms of strength and conditioning,” said starting quarterback Spencer Neve. “Doing all that and really pushing each other over the summer really brought us together.”

Teamwork will be critical because Petaluma lacks players with significant varsity playing time. The lone returning starter is running back Stephen McElroy, and his carries were limited behind a pair of all-Empire backs. Still, McElroy is a fast and durable option for Neve. A trio of fullbacks should share the load as the other option: James Molinari and Patrick Hodges return and Damian Silver is up from junior varsity.

Neve is comfortable directing the triple option. After leading the junior varsity as a sophomore, he was the backup on varsity last year, missing the first several games with a knee injury from summer baseball. Petaluma’s starting catcher, Neve knows how to run a team on the field.

“It’s just like being a quarterback,” Krist said. “He’s a good athlete. He’s grown a lot over the year.”

With a strong arm at quarterback, Petaluma will throw more than the 6 passes a game it tossed last year. “The goal is to increase it. Game to game we will see what the defense gives us,” Krist said.

Returning at wide receiver is Tyler Tuck, who like Neve will get far more playing time. Adam Nizibian is another pass-catching threat. “I’m really looking forward to it,” Neve said. “In our offense, the quarterback is really important. I love the opportunity to run or pass every play,” Neve said.

Anchoring the defense is linebacker Casey Rodd, whose season last year was cut by injury.

“We’re not as deep as we were last year on defense. We’re going to have a lot of movement, just swarming to the ball,” Krist said.

Playing together as a team is Petaluma’s greatest goal. “The kids are really picking it up. They really want to learn and they’ve put a lot of time into it this summer,” Krist said. “The kids are really committed.”

TEAM PREVIEW

PETALUMA
Coach:
Rick Krist (First season)
2009 record: 12-1, 6-0 in SCL (1st)
2009 JV record: 4-6
Returning starters: OFFENSE (1): RB Stephen McElroy; DEFENSE (0).
Players to watch: QB Spencer Neve: A backup last year after starting for the junior varsity, Neve has a strong arm in addition to running the triple option. LB Casey Rodd: Played a lot before an injury sidelined him last year and is counted on to help lead a swarming defense. RB Stephen McElroy: Primarily a blocking back last year, McElroy will be a primary option in the Trojans running game.
Newcomers to watch: They abound with a 50 player roster, larger than most team’s carry. FB Damian Silver, up from junior varsity, should share fullback duties. WR Adam Nizibian gives Neve another target as Petaluma looks to pass more.

SCHEDULE
Date – Opponent – Time
9-3 – at Santa Rosa – 7:30 p.m.
9-10 – vs. Maria Carrillo – 7:30 p.m.
9-17 – vs. Ukiah – 7:30 p.m.
9-24 – at Rancho Cotate – 7:30 p.m.
10-1 – at Healdsburg – 7:30 p.m.
10-8 – vs. El Molino – 7:30 p.m.
10-15 – at Casa Grande – 7:30 p.m.
10-29 – vs. Analy – 7:30 p.m.
11-5 – at Sonoma Valley – 7:30 p.m.
11-12 – vs. Windsor – 7:30 p.m.

BY THE NUMBERS
0:
Losses in the regular season last year, the first undefeated regular season for a Sonoma County team since 1995.
7: Players on the roster from the school’s Sonoma County League champion baseball team.
1921: Year of first meeting against Santa Rosa, the Trojans’ season-opening opponent.