Benefield: Redwood Empire football the best kinds of ‘What Ifs’

Analy's Osiris Zamora (7), left, escapes a tackle by Casa Grande's Nic Petri (16) during a varsity football game between Analy and Casa Grande high schools in Santa Rosa on Aug.28, 2015. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Analy’s Osiris Zamora (7), left, escapes a tackle by Casa Grande’s Nic Petri (16) during a varsity football game between Analy and Casa Grande high schools in Santa Rosa on Aug.28, 2015. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)



Before the season starts, everyone is perfect, every slate is clean. Weaknesses are secrets not yet exposed under the bright lights of Friday night.

Hope springs eternal and the best kinds of “What Ifs?” still abound.

And we are all know-it-alls who have yet to be proven wrong.

Football season is here. It’s homecoming, it’s bands, it’s boosters. When the season starts it’s summer and when it ends fall is approaching winter.

The weightlifting in spring? It made players stronger. The speed camp this summer? It made players faster. Passing league? It made them smarter.

But until teams suit up and line up against an opponent, it’s all talk. We can all guess who will be best, but now that the action is starting on Friday nights, guesses go away and answers emerge.

There are any number of intriguing story lines this fall but here are a few to watch for:

Cougar combo

Gunner Mefferd to Chris Taylor-Yamanoha. You’ll likely be hearing that a lot.

These two could combine to become the most electrifying pass-catch duo in years.

Taylor-Yamanoha, who is verbally committed to Louisville, had nearly twice the receiving yards as any other player in the North Bay League last season.

Catching balls from Mefferd, the talented lefthander whom longtime coach Ed Conroy calls one of his best passers ever, will be the easy part. Willing the Cougars past rival Cardinal Newman for the NBL title of best team in the league could prove a little tougher.

Speaking of Newman

The Cardinals were co-champs of the NBL last season — an honor they had to share with Rancho. Deepening that grudge: Newman lost to Rancho in their one head-to-head matchup last season. Look for Newman to seek a little payback, and that payback will likely come courtesy of super-talented junior quarterback Jordon Brookshire.

Brookshire did the near unthinkable last season: He was tapped by longtime coach Paul Cronin as the starter as just a sophomore. He did not disappoint. With another year under his belt, Brookshire should shine this season.

New setup, same game?

Tomales, one of the best places in the Empire to watch a Friday-night football game, will have an entirely new setup this season. Having gone to 8-man football to keep the program alive in the face of dwindling participation, Tomales’ fans will have a new game to get used to. And a new coach. Veteran Leon Feliciano handed over the program to former assistant Dominic Sacheli who will try to steer the squad through unchartered territory.

Tomales is not alone in going smaller. Calistoga and Upper Lake have joined the 8-man NCL III this season as well.

He looks familiar

For years, coach Tom Kirkpatrick wore the red and black of Healdsburg High. Lured from retirement by the prospect of coaching the Windsor High Jaguars, Kirkpatrick will be back in black, but this season it will be black and gold. Kirkpatrick has a talented crew on his hands but a brand new quarterback. A solid team built on a robust youth program, the Jags could cause trouble for some teams.

Rebuilding or reloading?

No team in the Empire said goodbye to more big-name firepower than Analy, which lost 15 starters from its Sonoma County League champion squad. But don’t feel sorry for coach Daniel Bourdon. He’s got a system in place out in the west county and it’s one that will likely present problems for every league foe.

Bourdon has tapped junior quarterback Jack Newman to replace the graduated Will Smith. But who else in blue and white will step up to fill the massive holes left by a terrific class of ’15 remains to be seen.

New faces

In addition to Kirkpatrick and Sacheli, there are new coaches at both Elsie Allen and Santa Rosa. And like Kirkpatrick and Sacheli, Santa Rosa’s new top guy isn’t a stranger. Denis Brunk has moved from Lower Lake High to take over the Panthers — a squad that has struggled mightily in recent years. Steep, too, is the hill new Elsie Allen coach Bill Wight must climb to get the Lobos to tally more wins than losses.

But the joy of this list? It could all be bunk.

It’s easy and fun to look at rosters, take a peek at practices and listen to what coaches and players have to say about their squad and the teams they will face.

But it means nothing until the games are played.

And that might be the best part of onset of football season: We know nuthin’ and anything can happen.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.