Football preview: Empire powers among favorites in NCL II title chase

By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Settling into a hybrid Empire-Bay Area league has provided competitive small school football for area schools while preserving rivalries.

Story lines are developing in the second year of the NCL II/Bay Football League. Calistoga is an early favorite, St. Vincent and Tomales are strong challengers, and Stellar Prep out of Hayward could surprise. With a starting lineup’s worth of returning all-league players, close contests are expected most weeks. One-loss league seasons as St. Vincent and California School for the Deaf in Fremont had a year ago will be difficult to duplicate.

“The league is balanced. It’s very good,” said St. Vincent coach Gary Galloway.

While some programs struggle to field junior varsity squads, coaches are confident the league will survive and ultimately thrive. The anticipated addition of two more teams in 2014 is more cause for optimism.

“To be honest it is going to be an exciting league to watch,” said Calistoga coach Paul Harrell.

Five things you need to know:

Calistoga outlook: As good as 1999?

Returning a dozen starters including a trio of All-Empire players should make this year’s Calistoga team the best since the Wildcats won a North Coast Section title in 1999. Stout defense keeps Calistoga in games so the offense can score enough to win.

“We’re resilient. The boys can handle the adversity of getting down and know we can hold them and get back in games,” Harrell said.

Experience is also on St. Vincent’s side with a dozen returning starters. Look for the Mustangs to run more with a deep corps of backs and a young but tested line. Back on defense are stoppers accounting for half of St. Vincent’s stops a year ago.

“We’re pretty deep. We should be pretty good,” Galloway said.

Running remains the Tomales staple. Guiding the Braves’ offense at quarterback is the top back up from junior varsity. Tomales needed to reload on the line, but conditioning and commitment to the game plan should help. “The strength of this team will be the offensive line and the power back. We will be in the hunt,” said Tomales coach Leon Feliciano.

Making the section playoffs a fourth consecutive season is Upper Lake’s challenge. The Cougars have a veteran line to support new starters at running back and quarterback, and are counting on improved team tackling led by the linebackers.

“We have a lot of guys that were playing backup spots last year stepping into starting roles. They are a dedicated group,” said Upper Lake coach Alex Stabiner.

New guys could be league dark horse

Stellar Prep is perhaps the league’s most talented team, though still something of a mystery as a second-year program.

The Thunder, from Hayward, return three all-league players. But stronger line play and an improved defense are needed to keep the still young squad in games.

Keep your eyes on these players

Anthony Feliciano, Tomales, Sr., RB/LB — NCAA prospect; All-Empire; Averaged 147 yards a game, totaled 18 touchdowns.

Dylan Alvarado, Calistoga, Sr., RB/LB — All-Empire; Ran for Wildcats single season record 1314 yards including 16 touchdowns; Averaged 10 tackles a game.

Danny Alfaro, Calistoga, Sr., DB/TE — All-Empire; Averaged 26 yards per catch and eight tackles, also great kicker.

Walker Hughes, Calistoga, Sr. LB/OL — All-Empire; Moves to defensive end with size and speed; offensive line load.

Derek Murphy, St. Vincent, Sr., RB/LB — All-Empire; leads Mustangs’ run game and top receiving target scored 22 touchdowns.

Zach Sitchler, St. Vincent, Jr., LB/RB — Second among returning defenders in tackles, and adds depth at running back.

Ian Severs, Upper Lake, Sr., RB/DL — Size and speed moves him from offensive line to lead running back.

Danny Moretti, Tomales, Sr., OL/DL — Anchors line that leads Braves double-wing running game; and defensive stalwart.

Junior varsity key to varsity success

Sustaining junior varsity teams maintains depth and player development. Yet even successful small school programs can struggle to fill rosters due to lower enrollment.

Calistoga last season folded the junior varsity when injuries hit an already small roster. The Wildcats are back with a deeper squad.

Tomales and Upper Lake are hanging in with thin, but tough lineups.

While numbers are down some at St. Vincent, the junior varsity continues reloading the Mustangs.

Put reminders in your calendar

Saturday, Sept. 14, St. Helena at St. Vincent — The former league rivals still play annually and often high scoring.

Saturday, Sept. 21, Lower Lake at Upper Lake — Third consecutive game against larger Lake County schools for Upper Lake.

Friday, Oct. 25, St. Vincent at Tomales — Longtime rivals typically battling for section playoff position.

Saturday, Nov. 9, Calistoga at St. Vincent — League title could be at stake in NCL II/Bay Football League finale.

Michael Coit can be reached at Mike.Coit@pressdemocrat.com

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