By RICHARD J. MARCUS
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Mission One for the Ukiah Wildcats this season is to bury the memories of the nightmarish 2014 campaign, when things went monumentally wrong from start to finish. The Wildcats are hoping that 2015 will provide a change of fortune and redemption from last season’s dismal outcome.
In a twist, Ukiah’s injury-plagued 2014 season (1-9 overall record and 0-7 in the NBL) and last-place finish has in a way taken pressure off the Wildcats, who are not expected to make much noise in their league this season.
“We went into last year feeling really confident that we had a chance to make the playoffs. We just got decimated by injuries and they weren’t minor ones,” Ukiah coach Jeff Burrell said. “We are building our program. It doesn’t happen overnight. It is a daunting task but the kids have stepped up.”
The Wildcats, according to Burrell, lost 17 starters throughout the season and were forced to press into service a corps of inexperienced junior varsity players who were overwhelmed by well-stocked NBL opponents. As the lopsided defeats piled up (Ukiah was outscored 308-55 in NBL play), team morale took a nosedive and there were some rumblings among Ukiah supporters in the community.
“We hit rock bottom with injuries and the emotional toll that comes with that,” Burrell said.
In short, it was not a good situation.
“In 32 years of coaching I have never seen that many injuries,” Burrell said. “We couldn’t play, it was so demoralizing. We had more starters on the sidelines than on the field.”
The biggest loss last season was when sophomore starting quarterback Brett Hofstetter suffered a season-ending injury to his non-throwing left shoulder against Santa Rosa in the fifth game.
Burrell said Hofstetter is back and ready for a breakout season and Hofstetter said he has no residual performance-hindering effects from the injury, even though he has a metal plate and screws in his shoulder.
“I’m excited to come back and ready to go,” Hofstetter said. “We can get our opponents when they aren’t looking. We’ve got nothing to lose; it can’t get any worse than last year.”
Anchoring the offensive line is 6-foot-4, 302-pound senior center/tackle Caden Johnson. There are four other returning starters on offense in addition to Johnson and Hofstetter, who proclaimed passing will be the team’s strength.
“We have some good receivers that have a lot of experience,” Hofstetter said. “We have more experience on offense this year.”
Defensively, Ukiah is greener than the offense with only four returning starters. Senior sack specialist Derante Lemelle will lead the defensive attack.
Many of the 38 roster players are former JV players from last year who played at least a partial season, so many of the younger players have at least a couple of games of experience to lean on.
“Our depth is pretty good. In all those losses last year we played a lot of kids,” Burrell said.
The Wildcats will get their chance to vanquish the ghosts of last year starting Friday on the road against McKinleyville, followed by a home game against Eureka on Sept. 4.
One tangible edge for Ukiah includes playing six of its 10 games at home, including four of the first five. Perhaps the favorable schedule will give the Wildcats the springboard they need to rise up and, if not upset NBL foes, at least give them four quarters of resistance.
“These kids are competitive, and it is no fun for anyone when you are getting pounded,” Burrell said. “Last year was disheartening, it was a struggle, but a new year brings renewed optimism.”
Avoiding a rash of injuries in 2015 would be a victory unto itself and might give the Wildcats a fighting chance, something that was missing on the Ukiah sidelines last season.
“We are going to do our best this season to bring highlights back to our program,” Burrell said. “The Wildcats will rise again. Count on it.”
UKIAH WILDCATS AT A GLANCE
Coach: Jeff Burrell (third year, ninth year overall including six years of previous Ukiah head-coaching experience)
2014 record: 1-9, 0-7 in NBL (last place)
2014 JV record: 6-3-1
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Brett Hofstetter, Jr., QB: A 6-foot-3, 185-pound junior, Hofstetter had good stats before suffering a season-ending injury in the fifth game. Burrell said Hofstetter has the capabilities to play at the next level. “He is an old school drop-back passer in the pocket,” Burrell said. “He lost a year and nobody has worked more hard to come back.”
Caden Johnson, Sr., C/OT: At 6-foot-4, 302 pounds, Johnson is the leader of the offensive line and has college recruiters taking interest, according to Burrell. Johnson has good speed for his size and owns most of Ukiah’s school weightlifting records.
Cody Shepard, Jr., RB/LB: Nicknamed “Code Red,” Shepard is also on the Wildcats wrestling team and brings his mat tenacity onto the field. “Cody plays with a lot of aggression,” Burrell said.
Dante Burrell, Sr., OL/DE: An All-NBL selection last year on defense, Burrell has the instincts one would expect from a coach’s kid but also the speed to close out runners trying to get to the outside. Coach Burrell said Dante’s technical acumen positions him to play any position on the defensive front.
GAME NOT TO MISS
Ukiah’s homecoming game Oct. 2 against Santa Rosa. Burrell said there is bad blood from last year’s game — a 14-7 Panthers victory — after Hofstetter suffered a catastrophic shoulder injury that ended his season and effectively dimmed the Wildcats’ outlook. Burrell said the hit on Hofstetter was late and out of bounds and Ukiah’s players have not forgotten what transpired. “Things in that game went out of control. Our kids are really looking forward to playing them at our place.”
The 1997 season when Ukiah won the formerly-named NCS-3A championship in a playoff bracket made up of SCL, NBL and Humboldt-Del Norte League opposition.
Aug. 28, at McKinleyville, 7:30
Sept. 4, Eureka, 7:30
Sept. 11, Piner, 7:30
Sept. 25, Windsor, 7:30
Oct. 2, Santa Rosa, 7:30
Oct. 10, Casa Grande*, 7:30
Oct. 16, at Montgomery, 7:30
Oct. 23, Cardinal Newman, 7:30
Oct. 30, at Rancho Cotate, 7:30
Nov. 6, Maria Carrillo, 7:30
* – at Rancho Cotate High School