By HOWARD SENZELL
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Plain and simple, Casa Grande is the team to beat in the North Bay League.
For starters, the Gauchos boast two elite players coveted by Division I colleges — Elijah Qualls and JaJuan Lawson.
Also, Casa returns 12 starters from last year’s team that went 9-4 and finished tied for second place in the Sonoma County League.
“The outlook is bright,” coach Trent Herzog said. “We return the nucleus of our skill position players on offense, with D-I college scholarship players in Qualls and Lawson in our backfield. I think we can have a very successful season.”
Qualls and Lawson caught the eye of scouts with gaudy stats in 2011.
Lawson completed 66 percent of his passes for 2,234 yards. That’s an average of 186 yards per game. Now 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, he threw 22 touchdown passes and was intercepted eight times.
Qualls, now a 6-foot-2, 275-pound senior, rushed for 1,139 yards last year, including 13 touchdowns, averaging nearly seven yards per carry.
Qualls wound up receiving 29 scholarship offers from BCS schools, including Michigan, Miami, Nebraska and Washington. He has committed to play for the Huskies.
Despite two more years in high school, Lawson already has scholarship offers from three D-I schools.
“He’ll be one of the highest-rated recruits on the West Coast in 2014,” Herzog said.
“He’s a great athlete with 4.4 (seconds) speed in the 40 (yards) and 10.8 in the 100 meters.”
Don’t get the idea the Gauchos are only a two-man team. Among the returning starters are defensive stalwarts Jake Ielmorini and Jimmy Johnson.
Ielmorini, a linebacker, had 54 solo tackles and assisted on 24 others in 13 games last season. He also had three sacks.
Johnson, the middle linebacker, had 67 solo tackles and assisted on 33 others. He had six sacks.
Ielmorini and Johnson form the nucleus of the defense, along with Qualls (tackle) and free safety Jarred Roberts.
Besides Qualls and Lawson, keys players on offense include wide receiver Cole Boggs, center Conor Feeney and tackle Allen Hernandez.
John Porchivina, a transfer from nearby St. Vincent, will also get playing time. The 200-pound junior running back averaged more than five yards per carry last year for the Mustangs.
“We have good overall size and speed on both sides of the ball,” Herzog said.
The Gauchos open Friday at Eureka and will host Heritage and Napa before playing their first NBL game on Sept. 21 at Montgomery.
“We have the toughest schedule around,” Herzog said. “Nine of our 10 regular-season opponents made the (NCS) playoffs in 2011.
“We’ll be tested week in and week out. We’re excited about the challenge.”
CASA GRANDE GAUCHOS
Coach: Trent Herzog (fourth season)
2011 record: 9-4, 4-2 in SCL (tied for second)
2011 JV record: 5-4-1
OFFENSE (7) FB Elijah Qualls, QB JaJuan Lawson, L Conor Feeney, L Allan Hernandez, TE Jake Ielmorini, WR Cole Boggs, RB Jarred Roberts.
DEFENSE (5) T Qualls, OLB Ielmorini, FS Roberts, MLB Jimmy Johnson, SS Austin Eger.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
RB Ellijah Qualls is one of the top 100 recruits in the nation.
QB JaJuan Lawson can run 40 yards in 4.4 seconds. Also excellent passer.
LB Jimmy Johnson led team with more than 100 tackles in 2011.
LB Jake Ielmorini scored two defensive TDs and made more than 75 tackles last year.
NEWCOMERS TO WATCH
RB John Porchivina, a transfer from St. Vincent, is a power runner.
DE Shane Reed didn’t play in ’11; has impressed in practice.
CB Joey Botai pound-for-pound toughest player on the team.
8/24at Eureka7:30 p.m.
8/31vs. Heritage7:30 p.m.
9/7vs. Napa7:30 p.m.
9/21at Montgomery7:30 p.m.
9/28vs. Santa Rosa7:30 p.m.
10/5vs. Maria Carrillo7:30 p.m.
10/12at Rancho Cotate7:30 p.m.
10/19at Ukiah7:30 p.m.
10/26at Windsor7:30 p.m.
11/2vs. Cardinal Newman7:30 p.m.