All-Empire small-school defensive player of year: Justin Kehoe

By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Opponents couldn’t run away from Justin Kehoe after the dominating end moved to linebacker.

Bolstering the Tomales defense, Kehoe welcomed the position change. While learning to quarterback the defense was challenging, the rewards were big plays and a return to the section championship game.

“I got in the plays a lot more. You get to attack more. It was a lot of fun,” Kehoe said.

A returning All-Empire selection, Kehoe is the Small School Football Defensive Player Of the Year.

Averaging an eye opening12 tackles a game, Kehoe led a defense that limited opponents to 16 points per contest. Kehoe also tied for a team-high seven sacks, led Tomales with four fumble recoveries and he even scored two touchdowns.

“He tackled sideline-to-sideline,” said Tomales coach Leon Feliciano. “He dominated games in every facet on defense.”

A three-year varsity starter, the 6-foot-2, 240-pounder anchored Tomales’ defense as the Braves powered to successive North Coast Section Division 5 title contests his junior and senior seasons.

As a junior Kehoe was the defensive end opposing coaches planned around, designing offenses to take the ball the other way.

Gaining ground on Kehoe’s side was a grind.

Ahead of this past season, Tomales coaches figured the best way to strengthen a smaller, faster defense was moving Kehoe to linebacker.

“We needed more of him. He’s a game changer,” Feliciano said.

A position change may not have been welcomed by many standout seniors aiming to impress college coaches. Yet Kehoe tackled the task, saying it made him an even better football player.

“Knowing another position makes me more versatile for college,” said Kehoe, who is leaning toward Santa Rosa Junior College.

Still, learning linebacker well enough to be among the Empire’s best defenders — large or small school — tested Kehoe as a student of the game. Gaining quickness also was demanded, as Kehoe now needed to stay with receivers as well as stop runs.

One level of playing the position is reading quarterback’s eyes and recognizing what an offense will likely do based on alignments of backs and receivers. Then there is calling defensive fronts and adjustments signaled from coaches on the sidelines.

“He worked hard. He’s very coachable,” Feliciano said.

At the start of the season Kehoe was still on the learning curve, gaining confidence with each series of plays, every game.

The season started rough for typically tough Tomales, playing a more difficult schedule in the realigned Empire small schools football landscape.

But After losing two of its first three games, the Braves finished 9-3-1, and earned the NCLII title.

Defeating rival St. Vincent twice to take the title was memorable. In the second contest — on the road in Petaluma — Kehoe snagged an interception to help thwart a Mustangs’ comeback.

“It was a pretty good turning point. We just about shut them down after that,” Kehoe said.
Named one of the team’s four captains was another highlight.

“It was a pretty big honor,” he said. “You just have to set an example for the younger guys. You practice hard and play hard and listen to the coaches.”

Presence is how Feliciano describes Kehoe on a football field.

“How he took charge in the huddle and on the field — you can’t coach that,” Feliciano said.

Such passion comes from a love of the game.

“You know you won’t play forever so you take advantage of it,” Kehoe said.

2011 ALL-EMPIRE SMALL-SCHOOL FOOTBALL

FIRST-TEAM DEFENSE

Defensive line
Quintton Bowlds, Willits, senior
Jacob Gallagher, St. Helena, senior
DJ Brookshire, Middletown, senior
Juan Avalos, Tomales, junior

Linebackers
Alex Quirici, St. Helena, senior
Nick Hoefer, Middletown, senior
Justin Brady, Tomales, junior

Defensive backs
Brian Begerow, St. Helena, senior
Andrew Caramagno, Tomales, senior
Kailer Collicot, Willits, junior
Logan Schulze, Willits senior

SECOND-TEAM DEFENSE

Defensive line
Mike Reynolds, Clear Lake, senior
Jimmy Figueroa, St. Helena, junior
Ronnie Dodds, Willits, senior
James Arms, Willits, senior

Linebackers
Robert Simondi, Upper Lake, senior
Bruce Tucker, Upper Lake, senior
Dylan Johnson, Point Arena, senior

Defensive backs
Kyle Brown, Middletown, senior
Cris Flores, Calistoga, junior
Geno Poloni, Kelseyville, senior
Marcos Espinoza, Anderson Valley, senior

Coach of the Year
Brandon Farrell, St. Helena