By RICHARD J. MARCUS
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
One question that looms over the North Bay League as the football season is which Casa Grande team will emerge in 2015?
The 2014 season saw Casa Grande unexpectedly sputter badly in the first half — losing its first five games and going 1-6 before finishing the season strong by winning five of its last six games. The Gauchos’ late-season surge fueled a surprise run to the NCS Division 2 semifinals before Casa Grande lost to eventual section champion Clayton Valley Charter. The streaky performance from last season leaves the Gauchos as a bit of an unknown quantity going into this season.
Although Casa Grande is not the favorite to win the NBL this year as it was a year go when the Gauchos were coming off the most successful football season in school history, they are still an NBL power and should not be discounted as a title contender.
“There are five or six schools to talk about in the NBL this year,” Casa Grande coach Trent Herzog said. “It is going to be really tough for a team to go undefeated in league this season.”
Certainly the Gauchos aim to get out of the gate quickly this season and not get bogged down with even a short losing streak to start the season. This task won’t be easy as the Gauchos’ non-conference season opens against Sonoma County League favorite Analy on Aug. 28 at Santa Rosa High followed by games on the road against powerhouses Napa on Sept. 4 and Franklin on Sept. 11.
“We scheduled those teams for a reason and we are going to come out (playing well) early,” Herzog said. “We are as athletic as anyone we are going up against this season, except for Franklin (which beat the Gauchos 43-3 last year).”
A good chunk of Casa Grande’s fortunes will rest on the arm of 6-foot, 6-inch, 220-pound starting quarterback J.,J., Anderson, who had 12 starts last season and is poised for a big year throwing to four returning starters at wide receivers, led by home- run threat Holton Johnson.
“We have a dynamic offense and we have a lot of extremely talented athletes. We are going to be able to run the ball consistently and that will keep defenses on their toes,” Anderson said. “I’ve gained confidence and I have trust in our receivers and offensive line.”
However, it is the offensive line that is the uncertain cog of the Gauchos’ offense. The line is inexperienced and much smaller physically than the massive offensive lines that have been a Casa Grande hallmark over the past few seasons.
While Herzog voiced concern about the O-line, he said they have jelled recently. Whether the line can hold up throughout the season and provide adequate protection for Anderson will be a pivotal factor in the team’s success.
“I expect big time things from J.J. this year,” said Herzog. “His development is off the charts.”
Casa Grande has decent depth with a 40-player roster as well as a core group of players with experience (seven defensive starters return, five offensive starters) to form a good foundation.
“We aren’t as big and strong as last year but we are fast and mobile,” Herzog said. “We’ve got guys that can run.”
Defensively, the strength is in the linebacker corps, led by veteran senior team captain Nick Jensen in the middle. One loss that will be tough to replace is strong safety Dylan Roberts, who will miss most or all of the season after breaking a tibia and fibula in a dirt-bike accident in July.
“That is a huge loss for us,” Herzog said. “We have got to have other guys on defense step up.”
Another massive hole to fill is on special teams as all-everything placekicker Matt Abramo graduated and is competing for the starting kicker job at Washington State this season.
“Abramo was probably the best kicker in this area since I have been a coach (21 years),” Herzog said.
Another bump to overcome for the Gauchos is having only one true “home” game — Nov. 6 against Montgomery — because of their stadium renovation and turf installation. Casa Grande will play its’ other “home” games at several schools this season, in effect nullifying any advantage from playing host.
“We have to overcome some adversity and we are going to travel a lot but it’s going to make us stronger by going on the road and neutral sites to win football games,” Herzog said. “We don’t have a bull’s-eye on us this year because we are not the NBL favorite but in the middle of the pack. We are going to be stealth and under the radar.”
If Casa Grande can use its speed and experience and shore up some holes, the Gauchos have a shot at competing for the NBL title.
“I like our team. I like our chances,” Herzog said.
CASA GRANDE GAUCHOS AT A GLANCE
Coach: Trent Herzog (seventh year)
2014 record: 6-7, 4-3 in NBL (t-third place)
2014 JV record: 4-6
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Nick Jensen, LB/RB, Sr.: A third-year starter and team captain, the 5-11, 210-pound middle linebacker will be the leader of the Gauchos defense. “Nick has a nose for the football. He is a great leader and throwback. He is a true football player,” Herzog said.
Spencer Torkelson, RB/LB, Jr.: A first-team All-NBL selection on both sides of the ball last season. According to Herzog, Torkelson’s combination of strength and speed gives him the skillset to play at the collegiate level and he has received interest from numerous PacAC-12 football programs. “Spencer is one of the best athletes I have been around in 20 years of coaching. He is pretty special.”
Andrew Floerke, DL/RB, Sr.: A 2014 first-team All-NBL selection on defense and second-team All-Redwood Empire team pick, the 6-foot, 220-pounder will be in the mix to be the Gauchos’ sack leader this season.
J.J. Anderson, QB, Sr.: After being at the helm last season, Anderson can rely on his experience and renewed confidence to provide the guiding light for the Casa Grande offensive attack. Anderson’s tremendous size (6-foot-6, 220-pounds) provides him the physical foundation for his field vision and pocket presence.
GAME NOT TO MISS
If all goes well in the stadium renovation, the final game of the season Nov. 6 against Montgomery will be the Gauchos’ first and only game on campus this season. In addition to being the only true home game for the Gauchos, the matchup with the Vikings will be the Gauchos’ homecoming. For extra drama, the battle might decide the NBL title.
In 1999, No. 8 seed Casa Grande upset No. 1 seed Cardinal Newman, 21-0, at SRJC in a first-round NCS playoff game. The shocking win broke an 18-game Gauchos losing streak to the Cardinals and was Casa Grande’s first playoff win in its 25-year history. “That was a huge win for our program and kind of put Casa Grande on the map,” Herzog said. “Ever since that game, there has only been one year (2002) where Casa Grande hasn’t made the NCS playoffs.”
Aug. 28, Analy*, 7:30
Sept. 4, at Napa, 7:30
Sept. 11, at Franklin, 7:15
Sept. 25, Rancho Cotate**, 7:30
Oct. 2, Windsor***, 7:30
Oct. 10, Ukiah***, 2:00
Oct. 16, at Cardinal Newman, 7:00
Oct. 23, at Maria Carrillo, 7:30
Oct. 30, at Santa Rosa, 7:30
Nov. 6, Montgomery, 7:30 p.m.
* – at Santa Rosa High School
** – at Santa Rosa Junior College
*** – at Petaluma High School