By HOWARD SENZELL
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Last season, with more sophomores than seniors on the roster, expectations weren’t high for the Maria Carrillo football team.
However, what was supposed to be a rebuilding year turned out to be anything but as the young Pumas surprised everyone by winning six games, including a first round North Coast Section playoff contest against Clayton Valley.
Now, the sophomores and juniors that were part of last season’s “rebuilding” team are getting ready for Friday’s opener at Analy and there’s a confidence around campus that the best is yet to come.
“This year, expectations are higher and we’ll have to live up to it,” coach Jay Higgins said. “Last year was gratifying because the team came together so early in the season. But that was then and this is now.”
While the Pumas had a young team, they did lose four outstanding players to graduation — Jake Delfino, Cody Giles, Nick Pinney and Anthony Ezrim.
On the plus side, Julian Gonzalez, one of the best two-way players in the league, is back for his senior season. He’ll again play quarterback and defensive back.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with how he matured as a player since last year,” Higgins said of the 5-foot-9 Gonzalez. “He’s very motivated to succeed and it shows in his work ethic.
“Last year, he took over as quarterback during the season and moved the offense. As a defensive back, he was outstanding.”
On offense, Gonzalez will be joined in the backfield by senior Sage Ritchie and sophomore Alex Netherda.
The other starter hasn’t been determined.
This past Saturday, the Pumas scrimmaged against Redwood and San Leandro.
“The defensive first unit played very well,” Higgins said. “I’ve felt all along we’re going to be a good defensive team and after the scrimmage, I still feel that way.”
Besides Gonzalez, key cogs on defense are: Sawyer Thompson (inside linebacker), Neatherda (linebacker), Alex Wrenn (lineman) and Tyus Arterberry (lineman).
“Most of the secondary is back from last year,” Higgins said. “We’ve got some size up front and we’ll be tough against the run.”
On offense, Carrillo utilizes the wing-T and will run a variety of plays off that formation.
“The players are ready for the season to start,” Higgins said. “They’ve practiced hard and want to get going.”
The coaching staff feels the same way.
MARIA CARRILLO PUMAS
Coach: Jay Higgins (12th season)
2011 record: 6-6, 4-2 in NBL (3rd)
2011 JV record: 3-6
OFFENSE (3): QB Julian Gonzalez, RB Sage Ritchie, TE Nate King
DEFENSE (3): LB Sawyer Thompson, LB Nate King, L Jake Boes
PLAYERS TO WATCH
QB/DB Julian Gonzalez had an outstanding junior season and has improved.
OL/LB Sawyer Thompson physical player, also fast and smart.
RB/LB Sage Ritchie has been a standout in pre-season practices.
NEWCOMERS TO WATCH
RB/LB Alex Netherda, a sophomore, quickly became a starter. Top hurdler in track.
DL Alex Wrenn is big, strong and physical. Anchors the defense.
L Tyus Arterberry’s hard work and leadership qualities have earned him playing time.
8/24 at Analy, 7:30 p.m.
9/7 at Benicia, 7:30 p.m.
9/14 vs. Alhambra, 7:30 p.m.
9/21 vs. Santa Rosa, 7:30 p.m.
9/28 at Windsor, 7:30 p.m.
10/5 at Casa Grande, 7:30 p.m.
10/12 vs. Cardinal Newman, 7:30 p.m.
10/19 vs. Rancho Cotate, 7:30 p.m.
10/26 at Montgomery, 7:30 p.m.
11/2 vs. Ukiah, 7:30 p.m.