Promise of August: Football teams kick off preseason practices

Santa Rosa High School football player Nico D'Amato runs through drills during the first official day of preseason football practice. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Santa Rosa High School football player Nico D’Amato runs through drills during the first official day of preseason football practice. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)


Spring brings the buzzing of bees, autumn the rustling of fallen leaves. And that sound that started to echo Monday afternoon? If this is early August, we are being serenaded by the violent popping of plastic pads.

Monday was the first day of allowable mandatory football practice, and programs large and small officially kicked off the new campaign up and down the Redwood Empire. It’s a time of sweat and fatigue and probably anxiety for a lot of kids, but it’s also the season of hope.

After all, nobody will suffer a loss until Aug. 26, the earliest teams are permitted to schedule games.

“This is what coaching is about,” said new Santa Rosa coach Dennis Brunk, who coached in Colorado for 16 years before returning home to work as offensive coordinator at Lower Lake. “I’m nearly 50. It’s one thing to walk into a program, but this is a super-duper challenge. That’s what makes it fun. It’s why I’m so excited.”

Brunk takes over a program with great potential, but one that has gone 9-39 in the North Bay League since posting its most recent winning record in 2007.

Whether he can turn around the Panthers is one of the questions begging answers in 2015. Here’s another: Will the Empire ever produce another section title?

For the first time since the North Coast Section reinstituted team championships in 1975, the region has gone three consecutive years without an ultimate winner in any of the NCS divisions. That means there isn’t a single current player among the 34 football teams in our coverage area who has played for a section champion.

Sure, that could change in December. Cardinal Newman and Rancho Cotate are expected to be among the top teams in Division 3, and Analy could join them depending on who steps up for the Tigers. Windsor, Casa Grande and Maria Carrillo should be highly competitive in Division 2. Middletown could be in the mix again in Division 5, and St. Helena and Fort Bragg can’t be discounted in Division 4.

And speaking of divisions, which are based purely on student enrollment, the categories have once again proved fluid. Piner and Willits were both in Division 4 last year, but the Prospectors are moving up to Division 3, while the Wolverines are headed down to Division 5. Santa Rosa is bouncing from Division 2 to Division 1, Ukiah from Division 3 to Division 2 and St. Helena from Division 5 to Division 4.

That isn’t the sole measure of change. Others will join Brunk in a crop of new coaches. For example, Tom Kirkpatrick, renowned for the work he did in Healdsburg, is the new guy at Windsor. Bill Wight takes over an Elsie Allen team that hasn’t been competitive in quite a long time. And Mike Ervin returns to coach in Calistoga after a five-year hiatus that included time on the staff of the semipro North Bay Rattlers.

Ervin returns not only to a different team, but almost to a different game. The Wildcats have gone to 8-man football, and they aren’t the only ones.

Last year, Calistoga was part of a four-team NCL II that also included St. Vincent, Tomales and Upper Lake. But four teams is barely enough for a league, and with small programs struggling more than ever to fill out rosters, three of those teams (all but St. Vincent) decided to join the NCL III, which plays 8-man ball and now has grown to 10 schools. The Mustangs have moved to the Bay Football League. The NCL II is now a phantom limb.

Even the venues are in flux. The West County high schools, Analy and El Molino, will be installing artificial-turf playing fields (with cork infill rather than the typical crumb rubber) and are unlikely to host any football games this year. Casa Grande is replacing its field, too, but is expected to have the project completed in October.

Fortunately, there is some continuity, in the form of gifted returning athletes.

Start with Cardinal Newman, where quarterback Jordon Brookshire, still just a junior, should be able to turn a corner in coach Paul Cronin’s offense. Brookshire is an immensely talented runner and thrower, and he has ample talent around him with senior teammates like wide receiver Connor Rubattino and the beefy road graders of the Cardinals’ line, Reed Palmer and Jamon Roberts.

But one of Newman’s most heated rivals, Rancho Cotate, has its own returning firepower. Coach Ed Conroy still thinks quarterback Gunner Mefferd, now a senior, can be the best passer he’s ever had. And Mefferd has one of the most athletically gifted players in the Redwood Empire at his disposal in lanky receiver Chris Taylor-Yamanoha.

Other players worth watching are Maria Carrillo linebacker/running back Josh Groesbeck, Casa running back Spencer Torkelson and Healdsburg linebacker Jacob Sloma.

Among the small schools, the top story could be the quarterback duel between two of last year’s best, Fort Bragg’s Kaylor Sullivan and St. Vincent’s Dominic Pederson. They are united in the same league as they enter their senior seasons, and each has some talent to work with. Meanwhile, senior running back Luke Bernardi figures to inflict some more damage up in Cloverdale. And in the expanded 8-man league, Anderson Valley’s Cesar Soto should pick up where he left off, slicing through opposing defenses.

Or, hey, maybe we’ve got this completely garbled. That’s the beauty of early August. Every team is a potential contender, and every scripted line is a work in progress.

“You have to build the foundation,” Brunk said. “Our goal is to be competitive, go out and play tough football, and we’ll see what the score says in the season. But we’re making progress.”