Football preview: Ukiah looks to the past to turn things around

By MATT MORRISON
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Marcus Scott, right, blocks an incoming pass rusher during Ukiah's football practice last week. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Marcus Scott, right, blocks an incoming pass rusher during Ukiah’s football practice last week. (Alvin Jornada / For The Press Democrat)

Turning the page once again for the Ukiah football program means the Wildcats have a third head coach in three seasons. This time, though, it’s turning back to an earlier chapter in the school’s history book.

Jeff Burrell returns to the helm of the program 22 years after he last coached his alma mater to a 7-3 record in 1991. He takes over for Bill Norbury, whose one season was marred by his diagnosis with prostate cancer and a 1-9 record. Reconditioning pride in a program that’s been waning is Burrell’s first order of business.

“The biggest challenge is changing the culture,” Burrell said of the program that’s suffered from player attrition over the past several seasons. “We want to get back to that culture of high expectations. We were once feared. Feared and talked about how hard we play. We want to bring back professionalism, enthusiasm, community pride and the sacrifice it takes to put it all together.”

To that end, Burrell has put together a staff he says is brimming with enthusiasm, and they’ve worked hard at getting good athletes interested in playing football again. Assistant head coaches John Toohey and Logo Tevasue have spearheaded the effort to fill out the roster. Through spring drills, offseason training and summer camps, the numbers have grown to 110 varsity and JV players in the program this fall. That’s about double the players from a year ago.

The numbers are particularly impressive on the offensive line. “We’re very, very big,” Burrell said of a group that averages 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds. “We have 25 to 30 kids in the program that are over 200 pounds and most of them are sophomores and juniors.”

The offense is under the guidance of Toohey and Ron Capazuto, a well-respected veteran coach who tutored Tom Brady when the NFL star was at Serra High in San Mateo.

If that size up front translates to yardage, the biggest beneficiary could be senior running back Cheyenne Noda. An honorable mention All-NBL selection last season, Noda has “incredible quickness,” according to Burrell. “We’ll use him in a multipurpose role.” Senior Koa Sibley is a transfer from Mt. Eden of Hayward who will also get carries at tailback.

The quarterbacking will be handled by senior Shane Bartz, who was the starter at the beginning of last season before a concussion cut short his playing time. Gabe Knight, a 6-4, 215-pound sophomore who played varsity basketball as a freshman, will also contend for playing time behind center. Mikey Russel will play wideout after taking most of the snaps last season.

Senior Marcus Scott anchors the defense from his inside linebacker position with senior Chandler Rickel returning in the secondary after earning an All-NBL honorable mention last season. Rickel will also play wide receiver.

“Right now, our strength is in the defense. We’re going to be very active, very mobile and very quick,” Burrell said. He points to the larger roster that affords him more choice in keeping players focused on one side of the football. Burrell says he can already see an attitude of intensity defensive coach Tevasue is trying to instill.

Using the school’s successful wrestling program as a model, Burrell is determined to build the same kind of team unity that encompasses the entire school and Ukiah community in support. He wouldn’t offer a timeline but he believes that’s the key to reconstructing the foundation.

“I don’t know if that will take one year,” Burrell said. “A couple? We need commitment and sacrifice and there’s been a lack of that. We need to be like a phoenix. We need to rise up. The Wildcats lost the mojo and we’ve got to find that mojo again.”

UKIAH WILDCATS

Coach: Jeff Burrell (1st year)

2012 record: 1-9 overall, 0-9 NBL (8th place)

2012 JV record: 6-4

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Marcus Scott, Sr., LB — Talented all-around athlete and team leader sets the tone for the defense. Will also see action on offense and special teams.

Cheyenne Noda, Sr., RB — Honorable Mention All-NBL running back will be used as a multipurpose back on offense and a cornerback on defense.

Chandler Rickel, Sr.,WR/DB — Returning All-NBL honorable mention selection will anchor the secondary and play receiver on offense.

Brian Sherwood, Sr., WR — Athletic, 6-foot-7 standout on the Wildcats basketball team is playing his first season of football as a senior.

INSIDE SCOOP

Opponents could be surprised by the size of Ukiah players in 2013. The varsity team had only a handful of players who were more than 200 pounds a year ago. With a concerted effort on getting bigger athletes out for football, and enthusiastic offseason training, the offensive line now averages 265 pounds per man.

GAME NOT TO MISS

Friday, Sept. 27, vs. Cardinal Newman: The Wildcats’ conference opener at home comes after a bye week. With three preseason games to prepare, a date with the perennial NBL powerhouse should determine the level of Ukiah’s progress.

ALL-TIME HIGHLIGHT

The 1999 Wildcats under head coach Chris Burris were seeded sixth in the NCS playoffs with a 6-4 regular-season record before running the table with three consecutive tournament wins. A victory against Petaluma in the championship game earned Ukiah the class 3A Redwood Empire title.

SCHEDULE

Aug. 31, at Piner, 2 p.m.

Sept. 6, Willits, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 13, Oakwood, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 27, Cardinal Newman, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 4, at Rancho Cotate, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 11, Windsor, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 18, at Montgomery, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 25, at Casa Grande, 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 1, Santa Rosa, 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 8, Maria Carrillo, 7:30 p.m.

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