Football preview: Healdsburg has depth, renewed confidence

Free safety Chris Pedroni, right, wraps up teammate Julian Lopez during practice at Healdsburg High. Photo by John Burgess / Press Democrat

Free safety Chris Pedroni, right, wraps up teammate Julian Lopez during practice at Healdsburg High.
Photo by John Burgess / Press Democrat

By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Strength along the front lines often decides football contests, and Healdsburg has the depth and experience to rank among the Empire’s best.

Returning all but one starting lineman on both sides of the ball, the Greyhounds promise to be defensively tough and offensively sound.

Competing for a Sonoma County League title and challenging for a section championship are back on the radar screen for one of the Empire’s traditional prep powers.

“We’re looking really solid. We’re confident we can beat anybody,” said Jacob Sloma, an All-Empire defensive end.

Healdsburg’s top tackler is among 14 returning starters for the Greyhounds. Leading the pack are Sloma and three other seniors, all starters on varsity since their sophomore season.

“We’ve got some depth,” said Healdsburg coach Todd Beth. “It’s nice to have those guys back. You can just jump in and build off what they already know.”

What the Greyhounds have no doubt about is taking their game to a higher level after getting the program back on a winning track last season. Yet enough disappointment lingers to make both returning players and newcomers hungry for an even more memorable campaign.

Playing well enough to take second in the SCL in 2013, Healdsburg players also know that was a shared spot with Sonoma Valley after falling to the Dragons late in the season.

Boasting a body of work worthy of their No. 3 seed in the North Coast Section Division 4 playoffs, the Greyhounds could not shake off a bye week and were upset in the quarterfinals.

“We just want to work together as a team and put our potential to the fullest,” said Ramsey Wittke, who returns at quarterback.

Success starts up front.

On defense, all four starting linemen are back. Tanner Cristando, Tyler Soracco and John Nelson — a trio of All-SCL selections — join Sloma.

Sizable enough for Division 4, the line is quick and athletic. Improving on those skills could make Healdsburg even stingier yielding yards.

Healdsburg linebackers and defensive backfield also return experienced hands, led by All-Empire defensive back Chris Pedroni, All-SCL cornerback Julian Lopez and linebacker Michael Van Dorn.

Coming off a season in which Healdsburg gave up 20 points a game, the Greyhounds defense looks to tighten down on opponents.

“Defensively we should be solid,” Beth said. “That’s going to be one of our strong points.”

A strong offensive line promises to bolster the development of a running game and Wittke’s efficiency as a passer. Jared Beth returns up front with Sloma and Nelson.

Healdsburg seeks an answer to the team’s primary question mark: Who will run the ball?

The Greyhounds graduated a pair of backs who accounted for three-fourths of the team’s yards rushing. Several backs are working with the offense. Van Dorn is the most experienced ball carrier. Bryant Herrguth is up from junior varsity.

Still, look for the Greyhounds to pass more. Wittke is confident coming off a season in which he threw for more than 150 yards a game, and that was with Healdsburg ball carriers grinding out more than 170 yards each night out.

Boosting faith in the air attack are several returning receivers led by Cristando, who was second on the team in yards and first in scoring catches a year ago. Cristando and Pedroni were All-SCL receivers, and Lopez is also back.

“We’ve got some kids coming back. I think we will be improved in the passing game,” Beth said.

Expectations are high, with depth and experience off last season’s strong campaign. And the Greyhounds embrace the urgency to win.

Adding a third section title to the Healdsburg program’s resume is the ultimate goal.

“I feel like that sparks some fire,” Sloma said. “We can go far.”

You can reach Staff Writer Michael Coit at 521-5470 or mike.coit@pressdemocrat.com.

HEALDSBURG GREYHOUNDS
Coach: Todd Beth
2013 record: 6-5 overall, 4-2 SCL (T-2nd place)
2013 JV record: 3-7

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Ramsey Wittke, Sr., QB — Returning starter expected to lead improved passing game with four receivers back. Calm in the pocket, Wittke is elusive enough to keep plays alive. As a junior threw for 155 yards a game with 16 touchdowns against 5 interceptions; was All-Sonoma County League.
Tanner Cristando, Sr., TE/DE — A top two-way player who was All-SCL on both sides of the ball last season. On offense Cristando was second on the team in catches and led the Greyhounds in touchdown receptions. Versatile on defense, he averaged more than 5 tackles per contest as a junior.
Jacob Sloma, Sr., OL/DE — The All-Empire defensive lineman was SCL Co-Defensive Player of the Year as a junior. Sloma had 12 tackles a game and led Greyhounds with 8 solo sacks, the same total he logged as a sophomore. This season he anchors a fast, athletic defense.
Chris Pedroni, Sr., WR/FS — Another two-way standout, Pedroni was All-Empire at defensive back as a junior with more than 5 tackles a game. Pedroni also was All-SCL at wide receiver, and should be an even bigger target this season.

GAME NOT TO MISS
Last season’s loss at Sonoma Valley ultimately dropped Healdsburg into a tie with the Dragons for second place in the final SCL standings. The Greyhounds not only want to return the favor at home, but also stay sharp for league favorite Analy the following week.

ALL-TIME HIGHLIGHT
Healdsburg last won a North Coast Section football title in 1998 after losing section championship contests two of the previous three seasons. The Greyhounds opened the 1998 campaign 3-3. Overcoming injuries, Healdsburg then won seven straight including dominating playoff opponents.

SCHEDULE
Aug. 29 at Fortuna 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 5 St. Helena 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 12 Middletown 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 19 at Piedmont 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 26 El Molino 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 3 at Elsie Allen7:30 p.m.
Oct. 10 Petaluma 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 17 at Analy 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 24 Sonoma Valley 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 1 at Piner 2:00 p.m.
Nov. 7 Bye