Benefield: West County’s youthful Tigers learned how to roar

Ja’Narrick James breaks clear of the defense in a game with the West County Tigers in their Pop Warner midgets championship season of 2010. (Photo by Jim Deis)

Ja’Narrick James breaks clear of the defense in a game with the West County Tigers in their Pop Warner midgets championship season of 2010. (Photo by Jim Deis)

By KERRY BENEFIELD

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Will Smith, Ja’Narrick James and Jesse Erdmann of Analy. Willy Lepori and Dante Feliciano from Tomales. Steven Mori from El Molino. Shawn Byrd from Montgomery and Paul Gregorian from St. Vincent. The list could go on and it does.

It’s an all-league strength lineup with top-shelf football players from across three separate Empire football leagues.

Now picture those guys lining up for the same team. A coach’s dream, right?

Jim Lewis lived the dream four years ago, coaching a group of eighth-graders to the Pop Warner midgets championship while having under his tutelage some of the brightest stars in the current local prep football constellation.

Those Tigers — they were all West County Tigers then — brought home the midget championship for the first time since anyone can remember, and that feat hasn’t been repeated.

“They won everything,” Lewis said. “They were just a special group of boys.”

The core of that team that’s been together through the West County Pop Warner system now makes up the heart of the Analy squad — a team that has owned the re-aligned SCL.

“That all started in 2010,” said Analy’s first team all-SCL quarterback Will Smith. “It has carried over every year since then.”

A look at that lineup of eighth-graders on the midgets squad is like reading a who’s who of all-league seniors.

“They are a great group of boys,” said Lewis, now the junior varsity coach at Analy. “We never had anyone who wanted to stand out any more than anyone else.”

Talent bulged from the roster then and it’s the same story today.

“All those names keep popping up in the paper,” said veteran Tomales High coach Leon Feliciano, father of Dante, who was a stalwart on those ’10 Tigers.

“We were really big for our age,” said Jesse Erdmann, a second-team all-SCL defensive lineman for Analy. “Dante Feliciano was 6 feet tall — or that’s what it seemed like.”

Feliciano, a first-team all-NCL II lineman, owns the defense at Tomales, with 38 total tackles and a team-leading seven sacks going into Saturday’s season final at St. Vincent. But he remembers the work ethic of that midgets team as one that set the tone for his high school career.

“All those kids now are intense football players,” he said. “But practice was a blast. I wasn’t dreading going to practice, it wasn’t ‘Mom, take me out, I’m sick.’ We were out there, rain or shine, hitting people, telling jokes, having fun.”

His teammate on the other side of the ball, Lepori, played a midgets playoff game with a broken hand locked up in a cast — a memory more than one old teammate recalled with awe. They were also quick to point out the injured Lepori still snagged two touchdown passes.

Lepori, all-league honorable mention for his defensive skills last year, has rushed for more than 1,496 yards this season for the 7-2 Tomales Braves, averaging 162 yards a game going into Saturday’s game.

“I think, ‘What if we had Willy Lepori and Ja’Narrick James?’ ” Analy’s Smith said. “One time we did have that. We had a special team under Jim. It was the most fun I’ve ever had playing football.”

Talking about that 2010 team now, the guys on that squad talk not of their own heroics but of getting to watch other players come into their own. One teammate described a Ja’Narrick James run in which he dove 10 yards into the end zone. I countered that that really isn’t a dive, but rather a kid taking flight. But the teller of the story was insistent — James flew.

James, named co-back of the SCL last year, is still providing highlight-reel runs — now for the 9-1 Analy Tigers. He averages 11 yards per carry for the Tigers and is one of the most electric players in Empire football. It’s apparently a pattern he set early on.

“Ja’Narrick, the way he carries himself, it’s like he’s going to score a touchdown every time he touched the ball,” Lepori said. “And Will Smith, it’s cool to see him do unreal things. He is one hell of a quarterback. He threw me dimes. I wish I could be his wide receiver.”

Smith is averaging 215 yards in the air per game for the Tigers and marching his squad into the playoffs — again.

“Playing with that team in 2010, it built a lot of good friendships that we’ve had through the years,” Smith said.

Those 2010 Tigers still see each other here and there, sometimes on the football field. After the game, guys wearing different jerseys and on opposites sides of the win-lose line take pictures and catch up. There’s a little bit of Tiger in all of them.

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