By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The NCL III drew a lot of arched eyebrows in 2011 when the league announced it was going to 8-man football. Traditionalists wondered whether anyone would come out to watch this quirky version of the sport, and some warned that fewer kids would sign up to play.
Four years later, 8-man football isn’t just thriving, it’s growing. Tomales, Calistoga and Upper Lake have joined the existing teams of the NCL III this year, creating a 10-school league that is the largest in the region in terms of membership.
The influx of competition makes the NCL III hard to handicap and plenty of fun to watch. Here are a few things to note as the small schools get to work.
MAKING THE TRANSITION
Tomales and Calistoga are, relative to the other campuses in this league, fairly large schools with strong football traditions. For that reason, you might expect them to become the immediate favorites in the realigned NCL III.
But neither of these teams has played 8-man football before. Their ability to compete for a league title may hinge on how quickly they can adapt to the game.
“It’s hard to stay still at this point,” Tomales coach Dominic Sacheli said. “I am confident in the kids we have. I know we can put eight really good players on the field. But there’s a little bit of anxiety about not knowing — especially when the first game we play is against Mendocino (at Tomales on Sept. 5). We know they’re a pretty good team.”
Tomales will be relying heavily on four returning seniors: quarterback Johnny Barajas, running back and linebacker Ty Evenich, running back/defensive back Andres Cuevas and two-way lineman Eli Gutierrez.
Calistoga will be looking for big contributions from three of its seniors: lineman Oscar Perez, linebacker and tight end Edgar Avina, and Jorge Polanco, who will play center and either linebacker or defensive line.
IN WITH THE OLD
Making the switch even trickier for Tomales and Calistoga is the fact that both have new head coaches in 2015. Of course, neither is a stranger to his program.
Sacheli was born in West Marin County, in the Inverness-Point Reyes area, and he graduated from Tomales High in 2002. He came back in 2007 to coach the Braves’ JV football team. Sacheli spent five years as JV head coach, then assisted longtime Tomales varsity coach Leon Feliciano.
Feliciano stepped down after running the program for 19 years.
Calistoga coach Mike Ervin, meanwhile, has deep ties to Redwood Empire football and lots of familiarity with the Wildcats. He coached the team from 2006-09 and compiled a league record of 15-10 in the NCL II.
Last year, Calistoga had 15 players ruled academically ineligible and had to scrap its JV program. So Ervin is stressing grades and accountability this year. Every Monday, each of his players begins the week with five points. Miss a class or get too many tardies, you lose a point. If a kid has dropped four points by Thursday, he’ll sit on the bench for a half the next night. If he loses all five points he won’t play at all.
“The athletic director will give me a printout every day of who has and hasn’t done their homework. They get to see me after practice,” Ervin said. “Because there is more to it than football.”
THE SOTO FACTOR
Anderson Valley, the defending NCL III champion, has every reason to be optimistic as the 2015 season opens. The Panthers went undefeated in 10 games last year, and they welcome back Cesar Soto, one of the most dynamic players in the league.
Soto was the league’s offensive MVP as a junior last year after slicing up defenses as a running back. He was also one of Anderson Valley’s best defenders as a linebacker.
The Panthers’ have other key players coming back, too, like seniors Will Lemons, Erin Perez, Jared Johnston and Alejandro Gutierrez, and junior Tony Pardini.
SEARCHING FOR A SUCCESSOR
When league MVP Reed Carter graduated in the spring of 2014, he left huge shoes to fill at Mendocino. Amazingly, Preston Salmans’ feet were just about the right size. Salmans wound up being voted the NCL III defensive MVP in 2014, and was a monster on the other side of the ball, too, as he ran for 1,120 yards and 16 touchdowns, and passed for 1,054 yards and another 15 scores.
But Salmans, too, has graduated now, leaving Mendocino with the task of replacing yet another superstar. Among the players coach Theron Miller is looking at to replace Salmans by committee are junior quarterback Colten Tavarez, junior lineman Damien Duncan (who will play some running back, too) and senior cornerback Jose Cuevas.
You can bet some teams are hoping to catch up with the Cardinals, who have gone 16-1 in league play over Miller’s three seasons.
BEWARE OF PIRATES
One NCL III team that shouldn’t be overlooked: Point Arena. Coming off a solid 5-4 season (4-2 in league), the Pirates have a legitimate shot at their first banner since 2011. Their core strength is the returning backfield duo of Cody Cissna and Joby Baker. Cissna, now a senior, ran for 1,202 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Baker, still just a junior, chipped in with 688 yards and nine scores.
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Skinny_Post and read his blog at 110percent.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.