Gauchos face their biggest challenge

Quarterback Nick Sherry will lead Casa Grande against top-seeded Concord in Friday's NCS semifinal. Photo by Scott Manchester / for The Press Democrat

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Through two rounds of the North Coast Section Division 2 playoffs, Concord has scored 96 points. Casa Grande has allowed zero. That’s about all the information you need to get psyched up for tonight’s semifinal game at Concord, a battle of 11-1 teams.

“We’re real excited,” Casa Grande coach Trent Herzog said. “This is why you play the game, why you practice all year long. When you get deep into the playoffs, you know the opponents are going to be great. We’ve been to the semifinals, this is the fifth time since I’ve been here, and this is the toughest opponent we’ve faced in the semifinals.”
Herzog doesn’t say that without reflection. He’s been at Casa since 2000, first as defensive coordinator and, the past two years, as head coach. He has always considered the 2003 Eureka team, an NCS champion headed by current NFL linebacker Rey Maualuga, to be the best he’s faced. No.2 would be the San Leandro squad that starred future pros Dennis Dixon and Jarrad Page.

“This Concord team is right up there with those two,” Herzog said.
The top-seeded Minutemen haven’t scored fewer than 36 points in a game this season, and it all starts with Ricky Lloyd, a dynamic 6-foot-3 quarterback who has committed to Southern Mississippi. Lloyd enters this contest with 3,871 passing yards (322.6 per game), 45 touchdown passes and just five interceptions. His yardage total is the highest in California, at any level of high school competition.

Herzog has seen some good quarterbacking this year. His guy, Nick Sherry, has tentatively committed to Colorado, and Mike Pierson of Sonoma County League foe El Molino is another top-flight pocket passer. Herzog believes Sherry may have the most long-term upside, but right now, Lloyd is both the most athletic and the most accurate of the three.

“He’s the best quarterback we’ve ever faced, maybe the best I’ve seen in the Bay Area,” Herzog said. “He’s real athletic, he has a great arm and he’s very accurate.”
Lloyd has a pair of game-breaking receivers in Kelly Starnes (96 catches, 1,472 yards, 21 touchdowns) and Terrence Young (59, 1,115, 9). To put those numbers in perspective, consider that the Gauchos’ Anthony Poole and Makana Garrigan are considered one of Sonoma County’s top receiving combos; their combined numbers — 94 catches, 1,369 yards, 14 TDs — fail to match Starnes’.

Starnes had three scoring receptions in a 46-20 win over Maria Carrillo last week, while Young had one.
Despite all of that firepower, the fourth-seeded Gauchos plan to board buses today and head down to Concord for a football game. In fact, they believe they have a chance to win it.
Casa Grande has long been known for good defense. This year’s team has taken it to a new level. Over their past seven games, the Gauchos have allowed more than seven points just once, against Windsor. They have a pair of heat-seeking inside linebackers in Michael Ielmorini and Jonathon Cole, and an undersized but aggressive defensive line.

Most of all, Casa relies on an active and opportunistic secondary led by Garrigan and Steven Bentley. “It’s as good a secondary as we’ve had,” Herzog said. “We feel we have six or seven guys who can cover.”
Last year, his first after succeeding Rick O’Brien as head coach, Herzog served as his own offensive and defensive coordinator. He found himself stretched too thin, and focusing too much on defense, his long-time specialty. He’s still highly involved on both sides of the ball this year, but he changed the dynamics by elevating Todd Smith to defensive coordinator and Bruce Rhode to offensive coordinator.

Herzog insists the moves made him a better coach, and they certainly haven’t hurt his surging Gauchos, who have yielded just 258 total yards in their two playoff games.
Smith, who has been a defensive coordinator at the junior-college level, approached Herzog in the spring of 2009 and handed him a resume, saying he had moved to Petaluma to open a business, but wanted to get back into football. Herzog hired him as an assistant, and eventually concluded that Smith was a worthy coordinator.

Without giving away his game plan, Herzog said he expects to vary his looks on defense tonight, making the Minutemen guess who will be rushing and who will be dropping into coverage. He estimates he’ll watch 30 hours of film on Concord, and his players will watch about three hours’ worth with coaches. If the Gauchos lose this game, it won’t be for lack of preparation.
About the only time Herzog’s team was less than prepared for an opponent was in a 36-28 loss at Ygnacio Valley. Concord beat that same team 46-24, which doesn’t seem to bode well for the Gauchos. But Herzog looks at that loss as a positive rather than a negative.

“We only had one film of them. We didn’t scout them live,” he said of Ygnacio Valley. “You’re gonna get outcoached once in a while, and they outcoached and outplayed us. But that loss was the best thing to happen to our staff and our team. I don’t remember us having a bad practice since that game. Like I told our kids, ‘You don’t want that feeling again.’”
The feeling the Gauchos would prefer is one of anticipation, looking forward to a Division 2 championship game against Pinole Valley or Rancho Cotate.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.