By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
In the four years since the NCL I went away from North and South divisions and merged into one eight-team league, it has seen three different champions — St. Helena, Fort Bragg and Middletown — and, last year, recognized co-champs in the Saints and Timberwolves.
So you could say this is anyone’s league to win. Or almost anyone’s. While the NCL I has been highly competitive at the top, there has been a gulf between the haves and have-nots lately. And that doesn’t figure to change in 2015. Fort Bragg, St. Helena and Middletown remain the standard bearers, with Cloverdale on their heels.
But that’s an oversimplification. Here’s a little more detail on the NCL I.
SIZING UP THE SAINTS
Coach Brandon Farrell has developed St. Helena into a perennial small-school powerhouse. The Saints reached a new height last year. After sharing the league title, they muscled through the North Coast Section Division 5 playoffs and weren’t done until they fell to Salesian 14-7 in a rugged D5 championship game.
But St. Helena faces a big challenge this year. Quarterback Jack Preston, last year’s All-Empire Small-School Offensive Football Player of the Year and overall Small-School Athlete of the Year, has moved on.
Now junior Dylan Martin will try to succeed Preston. Senior Dominic Collins was in competition for the job, but broke his collarbone at practice on Wednesday. Martin was St. Helena’s JV quarterback in 2014, and he has his work cut out for him if he wants to approximate Preston’s numbers.
Fortunately for the Saints, they have halfback Jahaiver Otero around for support. Otero had 948 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns as a junior last year before suffering a season-ending leg injury.
TIMBERWOLVES ON OFFENSIVE
Football coaches, as a general rule, will do anything not to admit they have a good team. But Fort Bragg coach Roy Perkins simply can’t contain his enthusiasm.
“I’m a bit of a realist, but there’s no beating around the bush with me this year,” Perkins said. “This is the 35th year I’ve done this, and it’s a very unique situation.”
The singularity of the Timberwolves’ prospects has to do with their high-powered offense. They were pretty good last year, scoring 338 points in 11 games behind an up-tempo, no-huddle attack that required a high degree of precision. Now, every skill-position starter from the 2014 varsity team is back for another run.
That starts with quarterback Kaylor Sullivan, who passed for 3,038 yards and 29 touchdowns last year despite missing two games with an injury and sitting out the late stages of several one-sided contests. Sullivan set a California state record and tied a national record with eight touchdown passes in one half against Encina Prep.
“If you’re asking me who will be the team to beat, I would say Fort Bragg right off the bat,” Middletown coach Bill Foltmer said.
BERNARDI IS BACK
Chad Prieskorn knew it would be a challenge when he agreed to replace longtime coach Rick Berry in Cloverdale. But Prieskorn has a fantastic building block in running back Luke Bernardi, who returns for his senior season after piling up 1,216 rushing yards and eight touchdowns for the Eagles in 2014.
Cloverdale was 6-5 overall last year, 5-4 in the NCL I, and Bernardi makes this a team to be reckoned with this fall. His cousin, tight end Adrian Bernardi, is back, too.
Prieskorn knows something about winning football. He was an All-Empire pick in 2002 when he played for the Eagles.
STORY WITH A DIFFICULT TITLE
The NCL I is always a highly competitive small-school league, with tough games up and down the schedule. But two of the league’s top teams will be heavy long shots should they make the playoffs.
Fort Bragg is in the North Coast Section’s Division 4, and this year St. Helena will be, too. The Saints are moving up from Division 5, with the NCS having rejiggered its formula. Division 4 now includes schools with enrollment ranging from 501 to 1,100 students, a fairly vast spectrum. St. Helena (505) and Fort Bragg (529) will be two of the smallest schools in the division, and will be lumped in with much larger campuses like Encinal (1,075), San Marin (1,031) and Elsie Allen (1,020).
LOOKING FOR A DARK HORSE
It’s fairly safe to assume that St. Helena, Fort Bragg and Middletown will be strong again, and that Cloverdale won’t be far behind. But what about the presumed bottom half of the NCL I? Might there be a surprise lurking?
There certainly are some candidates. Everyone seems impressed by second-year coach Justin Gaddy at Lower Lake, and the Trojans may throw the ball more than opponents are accustomed to seeing.
“I like what he’s doing with their program,” Foltmer said. “I think they’ll surprise a few people.”
Meanwhile, Kelseyville has a returning quarterback, a new coach in Eric Larson, and a youth league that is flourishing; Willits has a number of solid players returning from 2014; and Clear Lake is replenishing from last year’s strong JV team.
“Somebody will step up and be better than we thought,” Perkins said.
You can reach Phil Barber at 521-5263 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Skinny _Post or read his blog at 110percent.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.