Small-school football preview

Many of the players who defined small-school football a year ago, such as QB Brent Moyer of Fort Bragg, are gone. Photo by Crista Jeremiason, Press Democrat, 2009

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

High school coaches constantly preach on the importance of turnovers. But from year to year, just as important is the concept of turnover – that is, losing your best players to graduation.
It’s never easy to replace last year’s seniors, but large schools tend to have a few talented understudies waiting in the wings. In a smaller program, the loss of even one or two star players can be devastating.
Which is why small-school football is pretty much a blank canvas in the Redwood Empire heading into this 2010 season.
Many of the players who defined the sport a year ago are gone. Like RB Jake Cimolino and QB Brent Moyer of Fort Bragg. Like Cloverdale quarterback Jerod Domenichelli and LB/TE Casey Berry. Like running backs Kris Farinha of St.Vincent, D.J. Egger of Point Arena and Stan Moody of Tomales.
All of them have moved on, leaving a trio of North Central Leagues (I North, I South and II) that have an air of wide-open unpredictability as the season begins. It will be fun to see which teams adjust most quickly — and which players emerge as the indispensable seniors of 2010.
Here are some other storylines to follow throughout the season:

THE POWER OF EIGHT
When Tomales and Calistoga square off Nov.12, the game will look much as it always has. But any other NCLII game will have a much different appearance in 2010. And wait till you catch 2011.
After weeks of speculation, league athletic directors voted to move to nine-man football for the ’10 season. Tomales and Calistoga will continue to line up 11 players when facing another 11-man team. But Point Arena, Anderson Valley, Laytonville, Round Valley and Potter Valley will be playing nine-man.
Next up, the North Coast Section will rule on a proposal to split the Coastal Mountain Conference into not two but three divisions – NCLI, NCLII and NCLIII – in 2011. One of the divisions would include the five shorthanded schools, which will then shift to eight-man football. Another will include Tomales, Calistoga, Upper Lake and, presumably, St.Vincent. The NCL I will largely remain intact.
“A lot of schools here just don’t have the bodies,” Point Arena athletic director Leonard Bechtol said. “It’s a numbers game.”
Coaches and ADs hope that moving away from traditional 11-man football will minimize competitive mismatches, reduce injuries and cut down on the number of forfeits. Last year, for example, Anderson Valley forfeited three times — including the first round of the NCS DivisionV playoffs.
Whereas nine-man football is a lot like 11-man football without offensive tackles and edge rushers, the eight-man version is a different breed with a reconfigured field. The proposed change will also shake up the postseason, as the NCS currently allows only 11-man teams in its playoff brackets.

THE HOGS OF TOMALES
Tomales hasn’t lost an NCLII game in four seasons, though the Braves have gone through changes each year. Leon Feliciano’s teams have variously won with speed and brawn, on the legs of shifty running backs or behind the ferocity of an aggressive defense.
This year, Feliciano has no question where his strength lies.
“We’re big,” he said.
Especially on the offensive line, where the starting five are senior Charlie Kain-Williams (6-foot-7, 230 pounds), junior Justin Kehoe (6-1, 235), sophomore Juan Avalos (5-8, 230), senior Danny Sanchez (5-9, 280 … “He’s like a block,” Feliciano said) and junior Marcos Gonzalez (5-10, 205). That’s an average of 236 pounds of beef among the five blockers, which bodes well for the Braves’ committee of running backs.
Kain-Williams is clearly the standout of the line, a three-year starter who is attracting interest from college programs.
“He’s real athletic, he has a great frame and he can run,” Feliciano said.

FORT BRAGG’S ENCORE
When the NCS playoffs began last November, most eyes were trained on St.Vincent, the top seed in DivisionV. Middletown and Cloverdale, a pair of DivisionIV teams, also were generating interest.
But when the lights went off, Fort Bragg had stolen the show. The Timberwolves entered the DivisionIV bracket as the seventh seed, then proceeded to knock off No.10 McKinleyville, No.2 Ferndale, No.3 Salesian and No.9 Justin-Siena en route to the championship.
This year, coach Jack Moyer will be hard pressed to stage a repeat. Fort Bragg has four starters returning on offense and five on defense, but most of its leadership is gone — including Cimolino, Brent Moyer, LB/WR Cody Lowe, linemen Nathan Mitchell and Matthew Rashad, and WR Rene Herrejon.
Not that all is lost on the North Coast. Ball-hawking defensive backs Brandon Freitas and Cody Ryden, both seniors, should give the Timberwolves one of the region’s stronger secondaries.

NOT IN THEIR HOUSE
Whether you call their home base Yarbrough Stadium or Kiely Field, or even when the Mustangs have hosted opponents at Santa Rosa’s Ernie Nevers Field, St.Vincent has been simply unbeatable as the host team over the past three seasons, going undefeated in its past 16 home games.
The Mustangs, with just four returning starters on offense and three on defense, will be challenged to repeat last year’s 9-4 record. But make no mistake, Gary Galloway’s crew is the team to beat in the NCLI South.
The biggest challenges to the home win streak? Keep your eye on Middletown (Sept. 25), Fort Bragg (Oct. 2) and Cloverdale (Nov. 13).

BEST PLAYER YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF
Admittedly, Middletown doesn’t get a ton of play in these parts. That’s a pity, because Jake Davis just might be the best small-school player in the Empire. Last year, he was the NCLI North defensive player of the year as a 6-foot, 205-pound linebacker, and was an all-league pick at fullback, too, after scoring 19 rushing touchdowns in the regular season.
Davis, whose older brother Zack also was an all-league fullback at Middletown, is back for his senior season, and he makes the Mustangs the putative favorite in the North division.
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.