NCL III Football Preview: 8-man title appears to be up for grabs

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Mendocino's Mason Reed Carter runs the ball against Laytonville in first half action of their NCL Tittle game at Laytonville High School in Laytonville on Friday night November 2, 1012. (Scott Manchester, for The Press Democrat)

Mendocino’s Mason Reed Carter runs the ball against Laytonville in first half action of their NCL Tittle game at Laytonville High School in Laytonville on Friday night November 2, 1012. (Scott Manchester, for The Press Democrat)

Two years ago, the move to 8-man football in the NCL III seemed like a drastic experiment. By now, the benefits are clear. The smaller high schools of Mendocino County, joined by Rincon Valley Christian of Santa Rosa, aren’t forfeiting as many games, and quality of play has increased now that kids aren’t exhausted from lining up for every snap.

Eight-man football is back for another run in 2013, and here are some things to watch in the NCL III:

Anybody’s ball game

If the first two seasons of 8-man football have proved anything, it’s the difficulty of forecasting a champion. The standings were shaken up dramatically between 2011 and 2012. Point Arena went undefeated (6-0) in the NCL III that first year, then fell to 1-5. Mendocino went from 3-3 to 6-0. Laytonville went from 2-4 to 5-1. Anderson Valley went from 5-1 to 3-3. That’s what happens when rosters are small and the graduation of a couple key players changes a team’s outlook.

Everyone is ready for another shakeup in 2013.

“Last year it was Mendocino. Those guys were beasts. This year it could be anybody,” new Rincon Valley coach Robert Gray said. “It fluctuates so much. One year you’ve got a lot of seniors and juniors, the next year it’s freshmen and sophomores. Anybody could be a powerhouse.”

Get Carter

Mendocino lost a lot of players from its undefeated (8-0 overall) 2012 team, and has just a couple seniors on its roster. Fortunately for the Cardinals — and unfortunately for their competition — one of them is the incomparable Reed Carter.

For a lot of Redwood Empire residents, Carter is the best player you won’t see this year. He ran for 1,086 and scored 18 touchdowns in earning league offensive MVP honors a year ago, but that only begins to describe his importance. Carter is smart, lightning-fast and deceptively strong, and he’s as good defensively as he is on offense.

This year, he is likely to play quarterback on offense and cornerback on defense — though Carter will move around as needed. “I can put him anywhere,” coach Theron Miller said.

Weight-loss program

For whatever reason — probably just coincidence — the NCL III is slimming down this year.

Laytonville coach Corey James says his team is smaller and faster than last year’s squad. Potter Valley’s Dan Taber reports the same. So does Gray, at RVC. The coaches are adjusting accordingly.

“We’ve picked up speed instead of durability and strength,” James said. “We’ll be a little smaller as far as our backfield and receivers. We have to adapt to what we have.”

The Bear and the Eagles

Rincon Valley Christian is a small-school power in some sports, notably boys and girls basketball. But the football team has struggled in recent years. Now the school has turned to Gray, universally known as Bear, to turn things around. A former head coach and long-time defensive coordinator at Elsie Allen, Gray ran the defense at RVC the past couple of years. RVC has only two seniors this season, but gets a boost from junior Daniel Maples, who is moving to quarterback this year after garnering all-league status as a back/receiver as a sophomore.

Beware young Panthers

Anderson Valley could be on the rise again. The Panthers have as many as 10 returning seniors — and a couple of young guys who could be real difference-makers. “Two of their best players, Cesar Soto and Jared Johnston, are sophomores,” said Miller, who coached the boys in Pop Warner and calls Soto one of the fastest players in the NCL III.

Soto and Johnston both played significantly as varsity freshmen last year, Johnston at quarterback and Soto at tailback on offense, and both as defensive backs on the other side of the ball.

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