Casa Grande football lays it all on the line

The Gauchos offensive line returns five starters this season: from left, Greg Poteracke, Peter Parrick, Julian Lopez, Brendan Jackson and Tanner Shimek. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

The Gauchos offensive line returns five starters this season: from left, Greg Poteracke, Peter Parrick, Julian Lopez, Brendan Jackson and Tanner Shimek. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

PETALUMA — What weighs 1,300 pounds and speaks a unique language?

It’s the Casa Grande offensive line, and figuring out the Gauchos’ source of strength this season is no riddle.

Casa has bid farewell to 2013 Redwood Empire player of the year JaJuan Lawson, who is playing at New Mexico; star running back John Porchivina, who is at Cal; and all of its top receivers from a year ago. The Gauchos haven’t even settled on a quarterback yet. Senior Brent Eger will start in tonight’s big-ticket season opener against Analy, but junior JJ Anderson is likely to play, too.

Yet, as Casa Grande prepares to defend its North Bay League championship, the team is confident it can still put points on the board. The reason is an offensive line that returns more or less intact from 2013.

Casa’s front wall is enormous, experienced and well drilled. It’s also very tightly knit, a point driven home to line coach Frank Giammona when he noticed his offensive linemen were using terminology he hadn’t taught them. They had made up their own words for blocking calls.

“To be honest, I don’t always know what they’re saying — which I don’t have a huge problem with as long as they’re getting done what we want them to get done,” Giammona said.

They knew they were special

Some of these kids have played side by side for four years. Even as Casa freshmen, they could see the potential they shared. By last year, with four juniors starting, the offensive line was a key component in the team’s success, which included an undefeated league season and a run to the North Coast Section Division 2 championship game. Now the line is expected to be even better, and even more important to the retooling Gauchos.

Left guard Brendan Jackson, center Julian Lopez, right guard Peter Parrick and right tackle Greg Poteracke return as starters from 2013. And left tackle Tanner Shimek started about half the season while filling in for Jackson and Poteracke when they were injured. In effect, Casa Grande returns 4½ starters on the line in 2014, and they are a formidable group.

“It can be the best in the whole of Northern California if we put our mindset to it and we all work hard,” Jackson said.

The obvious place to start is their size. Shimek is 6-foot-3, 230 pounds; Jackson is 6-2, 270; Lopez is 6 feet, 235 pounds; Parrick is 6-4 and tips the scales at 290; Poteracke is 6-3, 270.

That’s a lot of beef on a high school line.

“Our goal is just to run a team over,” Parrick said. “We want to wear ’em out so we’re just rolling ’em over.”

The Casa coaches saw it happen a lot last year. Defenses would come out determined to match the Gauchos O-line blow for blow. By the third quarter, the defenders’ resolve had been bulldozed.

Leading the way is Jackson, whom Casa Grande head coach Trent Herzog calls the best O-lineman he’s seen in 20 years at the school. Jackson is tough and physical, and he plays with a mean streak.

“If he was two or three inches taller he’d have every D-I school banging at his door,” Herzog said.

As it is, Jackson has talked to the likes of Cal, Boise State and San Diego State.

Lopez is the vocal leader of the unit, and perhaps the best overall athlete on the Casa roster. “He’s one of the five fastest on the team,” Herzog said. “He ran a 4.7 40. He bench presses 350 pounds, squats like 450 pounds. He’s strong.”

Parrick might have the most potential because of his enormity, and is quite mobile for his size. Poteracke is another all-around athlete; he’s one of the top shot putters and discus throwers in the Empire. Shimek is a smart player, and athletic enough to play basketball at Casa and, probably, tight end if he wanted to.

Four of them start on defense, too, and the fifth, Parrick, is in the defensive line rotation.

Fat Man Friday

Measured individually, each is capable blocker. But offensive line is the one unit in football where the sum really can be greater than the parts, and that certainly is true at Casa Grande. This is an exceptionally close group of kids, and has been since they were freshmen.

“Our whole line is like one big, happy family,” Shimek said. “I feel like all of them are like my brothers.”

As if they don’t see one another enough on the field, the Gauchos linemen are practically inseparable off of it. Their usual priority?

“Obviously, we get something to eat,” Parrick said.

That includes the Casa tradition of Fat Man Friday, in which the offensive linemen head out en masse to decimate Subway or Mr. Pickle on game days.

After school, the O-linemen are probably swimming at Parrick’s house or playing Madden at Jackson’s.

Herzog largely entrusts his blockers to Giammona, who has coached for more than 20 years, and Cas Banaszek, who started at right tackle for the 49ers for most of a decade and now helps at Casa.

“There’s no reason for me ever to go over there,” Herzog said.

Casa Grande runs a power-blocking scheme, but it isn’t a simplistic one.

“We look at angles,” Giammona said. “We play with angles, and whatever gives us the best angle, that’s how they make their calls. We try to make it so that the defense is never right. On one play we can block literally four different ways.”

‘Aces in the deck’

Giammona allows his linemen to read the defensive alignment and make their own calls — mostly between the tackle and guard on the side the play is going to, and relayed to the running back as well. That sort of rapid decision-making is possible only after hours of film study and numbing repetition on the practice field.

“Ninety percent of their success is their work ethic,” Giammona said. “Anybody can be big and strong, but to play on the offensive line, you have a lot of unnatural movements. You run around with your knees bent. These kids come to work every day — and I’m not easy to play for. I know that about me. I can be very, very vocal. And I never hear a complaint.”

The Casa kids have learned what every offensive lineman internalizes at some point — that no matter how well they play, they are largely destined to toil in obscurity. It’s the nature of the position.

But teammates and coaches know that if the Gauchos are going to win another NBL title and take another stab at a section championship, they will do so riding on the broad shoulders of their offensive line.

“The thing I like about high school football the most is that every year you’re dealt a new deck of cards,” Herzog said. “You’re going to have some aces in the deck. We feel our aces are on the offensive line.”