Kerry Benefield: Tomales Braves exemplify synergy


Tomales High School coach Leon Feliciano talks to his 14-man football team after the Braves beat Hoopa Valley 41-12 on Friday night. (Photo by JOHN BURGESS, The Press Democrat)

Tomales High School coach Leon Feliciano talks to his 14-man football team after the Braves beat Hoopa Valley 41-12 on Friday night. (Photo by JOHN BURGESS, The Press Democrat)

TOMALES — The Tomales Braves are on a campaign this season. A campaign to not just win games but to reignite a program with a tradition that for decades has made the stadium on Irvin Road the place to be on Friday nights.

The Braves win games. Almost always have.

But despite a winning tradition, the Braves can feel it slipping away.

Fourteen players busted through the banner and took the field in the season opener against Hoopa Valley Friday night. Considering that 11 players are on the field — that is, quite literally, not much breathing room.

“We got some good kids, there are some tough kids,” head coach Leon Feliciano said. “We just don’t have a lot of them.”

It’s been a wave that’s been building off shore for years — declining enrollment and the emerging popularity of soccer that’s poaching top athletes from the football squad. The wave has crested and is pounding the Braves.

So few kids came out for the team this season that under “experience,” three guys on the roster are listed with “none.” There is no junior varsity squad.

“We’re small but mighty,” said senior running back and linebacker Willy Lepori.

The small but mighty Braves put a thumping on the visiting Warriors on Friday night. The scoreboard read 41-12, but it said more than that. It said we’re here, we’re tough — we are not going anywhere.

“With 14 guys …” Feliciano was looking toward the scoreboard which had already been erased, already moving on to the next game. “That (game) gave us buy in. To all the guys who didn’t believe — a lot of kids quit and didn’t come out. We’ve got to hang in tight together.”

The Braves did more than hang in on Friday night. They dominated every which way, despite guys cramping on the sideline, shoulders heaving from playing every down, all night.

Feliciano knows that intensity is tough to maintain. He has no room to spare, no buffer for injury or fatigue.

If a guy isn’t playing well, you’d be hard pressed to bench him when you have 14 kids eligible.

“We’re skating on thin ice,” Feliciano said about the future of the program.

Tomales has about 170 students, down from around 280 when Feliciano took over in 1996. He’s gone 131-65-3 with a student body that has declined bit by bit.

The players can feel it. It’s hard not to, when you look to the sideline and there are only three subs.

“It’s a shame to see such a great program go down,” Lepori said.

But it’s not going down without a fight.

The Braves expanded their repertoire Friday night.

Sure, it was the grinding, running football that Feliciano’s squads have long been known for. Lepori, who was responsible for four touchdowns Friday, was called upon early and often. Juniors Ty Evenich and Andres Cuevas were a potent combination on the ground.

But Feliciano gave the green light to senior quarterback Joel Gutierrez to let fly Friday night and it was the talk of the stands. Old-timers dressed in red and black who have been coming to Braves football games for decades have never seen a Feliciano squad go to the air as much as they did Friday night.

And that point-after attempt? Unheard of. Feliciano’s boys have always gone for two.

“He’s always been smash-mouth,” said Dave Osborn, the Braves’ longtime play-by-play announcer.

Maybe it was a signal that the guard is changing. Feliciano, who has led the Braves for 19 seasons, will retire after this campaign. Maybe all that passing — that point after — was a way of passing the torch and trying to light a fire under future Tomales players.

“We’ll keep it going,” Feliciano said. “It’s our responsibility as coaches to keep this great thing rolling.”

More than once, he said Tomales High is a special place.

If you look around out there, it says it everywhere — it’s the home of the brave.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or and on Twitter @benefield