NCL I football preview

St. Helena's Sebastian Segura runs for a touchdown in a 2012 NCS playoff game against Healdsburg. Segura, now a senior, is back to power the Saints. Photo credit: Scott Manchester / For The Press Democrat

St. Helena’s Sebastian Segura runs for a touchdown in a 2012 NCS playoff game against Healdsburg. Segura, now a senior, is back to power the Saints.
Photo credit: Scott Manchester / For The Press Democrat

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Last year, coach Roy Perkins took over the Fort Bragg football program literally days before the start of the season — and wound up guiding the Timberwolves to a 10-2 record and an NCL I title.

With an entire offseason to prepare, Fort Bragg’s path would seem to be a lot easier in 2013.

It’s not.

St. Helena and Middletown, a pair of small-school powers, will be there to hunt the ’Wolves, and a well-coached league means there won’t be many free passes for anyone this season.

Keep your eye on these factors as the campaign begins:

Bragg-ing rights
Compared to last year’s team, Fort Bragg is small, fast and inexperienced.

“We lost 17 seniors, and some quality players,” Perkins said. “The makeup of the team will definitely change, but I think that we will be competitive. We were carried by our defense last year. This year, I think we’ll be vastly improved offensively.”

The Timberwolves’ ground-based offensive attack will be paced by senior halfback Zach Smith — the returning All-Empire Small-School Offensive Player of the Year — and senior quarterback Tyler Ashby, a returning starter.

One concern for the Timberwolves: In going undefeated in the NCL I last year, they beat their three toughest league foes — St. Helena, Middletown and Willits — by a combined six points. All of those games were at Fort Bragg. This year, all three are on the road.

Saints marching up the charts
Two years after going undefeated in the NCL I, St. Helena might again be the team to beat in this league. The Saints return several all-league picks from 2012, including running back Sebastian Segura, lineman Litto Damonte, defensive end Kyle Grayson and linebacker Jackson Graff.

At the same time, coach Brandon Farrell knows his team faces a hurdle in replacing Richard Hoppe, a three-year starter at quarterback and The Press Democrat’s Small-School Athlete of the Year for 2012-13. Stepping into the role is junior Jack Preston.

“He’s an extremely hard-working kid, and he has some real good skills in areas that are gonna be utilized,” Farrell said of Preston. “But he’s also an improving player. It’s a position where you need to minimize mistakes. I think we have enough talent around him to make the transition from Richard to Jack an easy one.”

League’s story will have legs
The NCL I is loaded at running back this year, paced by three returning all-league picks.

Fort Bragg’s Smith is a true breakaway threat. He rushed for 1,801 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2013, including 250 yards against Piedmont in a first-round North Coast Section Division 4 playoff game, and a three-touchdown performance against Middletown.

The Mustangs have a dangerous runner of their own in senior Austin Benson. And St. Helena returns its top rusher in Segura, who put up 1,011 yards and 14 touchdowns as a junior last year.

Sidelines have a different look
Three NCL I schools will take the field with new head coaches in 2013. Nick Williamson has taken over in Willits, Mike McGuire is the guy in Kelseyville and Justin Gaddy is now coach at Lower Lake. Time will tell whether the new coaches prosper, but at least one of them has won some preseason admiration.

“I like what Lower Lake is doing,” Middletown coach Bill Foltmer said. “We saw them in a passing league and they looked good. I think Coach Gaddy will turn that program around.”

Gaddy, Lower Lake Class of ’97, played football at SRJC, then Whittier College.

Out of the gate and into the fire
Foltmer believes his Mustangs will contend for a league title this year, but before that, they will have to survive a preseason schedule that the veteran coach calls his toughest ever. Middletown opens at Salesian, winner of two of the past three North Coast Section Division 4 championships, then has home games against a pair of larger schools, Healdsburg and El Molino.

Fortunately for Foltmer, his team has some talent. He’s got a burly senior fullback (Brad Beckwith) to pair with Benson, a strong-armed, 6-foot-4 senior quarterback in Josiah Amos, and able protectors in tackle Wyatt Hall and guard Cody Chorjel, both juniors.

Phil Barber can be reached at Phil.Barber@pressdemocrat.com

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