No. 16 Rancho Cucamonga
By Dan Arritt
Rancho Cucamonga didn’t experience many growing pains after moving up to the SS-Inland Division last season. Two years after winning a Central Division title, the Cougars reached the semifinals of the Inland Empire’s most competitive playoff bracket, losing to Vista Murrieta on a goal-line stand in double overtime.
With six first-team all-Baseline League players returning for their senior year, Rancho Cucamonga is optimistic it can better last season’s finish.
Here’s a closer look at the Cougars.
Team: Rancho Cucamonga.
Coach: Nick Baiz, sixth season.
2010 Record: 11-2. Lost to Vista Murrieta in double overtime of an Inland Division semifinal.
Returning starters: 14 total. Eight on offense, six on defense.
Key players on offense: QB Dimitri Morales, WR J.T. Huggins, OL Cameron Turner, OL Brandon Carter, TE Metuisela Unga.
Key players on defense: LB Steven Mujica, DL Chase Morris, DB Toure Boyd, DB Tahaan Goodman.
Difference maker: J.T. Huggins is one of those offensive players who requires a GPS just to keep track of him. He might be at wide receiver on one play, in the slot the next and then lined up at fullback in a short-yardage situation. Oh yeah, and he returns punts and holds for the place kicker. The Cougars should be able to churn out drives with their huge, battle-tested offensive line, but Huggins gives them that much-needed big-play ability, which is necessary to prevent opposing defenses from stacking the box.
Newcomers: WR Jermel Walker, DB Chris Hawkins.
Not to be missed: Oct. 28, vs. Etiwanda at Rancho Cucamonga Los Osos High. Etiwanda appears to have surpassed Upland as the team for Rancho Cucamonga to beat in order to secure a second consecutive Baseline League title. Both the Cougars and Etiwanda will have played Upland by the time they meet in this game, so the pecking order should be settled when the final whistle blows.
Coach’s comment: “Our offense should be able to possess the ball and move the ball down the field,” coach Nick Baiz said. “If we take care of the ball and play solid defense, we should be in most games.”
Final analysis: Due to injuries, the Cougars used seven offensive linemen last season and five are back, including two three-year starters, carrying an average weight of 295 pounds. Throw in a returning quarterback and big-play receiver in Huggins, and Rancho Cucamonga enters the season as second-best team in the Inland Empire behind Corona Centennial. If the Cougars can stay healthy and build momentum as the season unfolds, they could realistically end up as the top team in the I.E. this season.
No. 18 Norco
By Dan Arritt
No team in the Inland Empire has a richer tradition or sustained streak of excellence than Norco. The Cougars have qualified for the Southern Section playoffs every season since 1987, winning five titles in that span and finishing runner up three other years.
Version 2011 should be no exception, as the Cougars return a number of key players from a team that won nine games with a freshman at quarterback and right guard. Throw in the addition of three quality starters who were ineligible last season and Norco might do more than just qualify for the postseason this year.
Here’s a closer look at the team.
Coach: Todd Gerhart, eighth season.
2010 Record: 9-3, lost to Vista Murrieta in the second round of the Inland Division playoffs.
Returning starters: 11 total. Six on offense, five on defense.
Key players on offense: QB Coltin Gerhart, OL Roy Faulkinbury, OL Cory Roth, OL Dustin Stanton, RB Joseph Ajeigbe.
Key players on defense: LB Scott Starr, DB Corbin McCarthy, DE Jake Hinson, DT Jake Ackling.
Difference maker: Norco has been funneling players to Stanford and Arizona State in recent years, but Scott Starr didn’t think twice when he was offered a scholarship to USC last spring. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound outside linebacker has 4.55 speed in the 40-yard dash, which allows him to track down opposing runners who dare round his corner. Once he puts a shoulder pad on an opponent, he seldom misses the tackle. The Cougars allowed at least 21 points in eight games last season, so those skills will be much needed if the Cougars want to cut down on their points-against average and take some pressure off the offense.
Newcomers: OL Artie Vasquez, WR Cameren Hemmings, LB Stephen Prescott, WR Marcus Jones, DB Justin Martin.
Not to be missed: at Corona Centennial, Oct. 21. The look on Todd Gerhart’s face after Centennial routed Norco, 45-0, last season was one of shock and awe. As head coach at the school, Gerhart had never lost by such a large margin and he wasn’t quite sure how to react. At least he wasn’t alone last season. This season’s matchup should be more rough-and-tumble, with both teams featuring hefty, experienced offensive lines. Norco’s line averages about 280 pounds and they should be better equipped to handle the Huskies.
Coach’s comment: “We’re still young,” Gerhart said. “We’ve got a sophomore quarterback and two sophomores on the offensive line, but it’s a good group of guys. We’ll score some points.”
Final analysis: With a son in the NFL, another at Arizona State and his youngest playing quarterback for the Cougars this season, Gerhart will certainly have a lot to think about again this fall. But the Cougars are certainly in better shape than a year ago. Coltin Gerhart has a year under his belt behind center and three of his five offensive linemen are returning. The Cougars also are set to gain the services of Cameren Hemmings, Stephen Prescott and Marcus Jones, all of whom were ineligible last season after transferring to Norco. Throw in a defense led by a future member of the Trojans and Gerhart also has plenty smile about this season.
No. 21 Chaparral
By Dan Arritt
Temecula Chaparral swallowed enough pride last season to feed an army. The Pumas came into the year ranked 11th in the state by Cal-Hi Sports ? ahead of such powerhouses as Mission Viejo, Corona Centennial and Oceanside ? but quickly learned they were either very over-hyped or considerable underachievers.
Chaparral proceeded to lose its first four games and five of its first six and never lived up to expectations. The season bottomed out when the Pumas lost to Temecula Great Oak toward the end of Southwestern League play. Two months after the season ended, coach Tom Leach was fired by the school principal for reasons still unclear.
But the Pumas have a new coach and a new attitude this season, as well as some pretty good players who are eager to turn things around.
Here’s a closer look at the Pumas:
Coach: Ryan Tukua, first season.
2010 Record: 4-7, lost to Upland in the first round of the Inland Division playoffs.
Returning starters: 12 total. Five on offense, seven on defense.
Key players on offense: QB Matt Morin, RB Skyler Seibold, OL Matt Adamson, OL Pat Clifford, RB Justin Harris.
Key players on defense: SS Curtis Dozier, LB Josh Ponder, LB Joe Robinson, DE Teddy Queen, LB Marquis Cobb.
Difference maker: Morin seemed a bit out of sync early last season. The junior quarterback had transferred from Murrieta Valley and was taking over a team that was stacked with talent and moved with a heavy swagger. But the Pumas got off to the rocky start and Morin also struggled. The left-hander finally showed some moxie in 40-35 loss to Upland in the first round of the playoffs, throwing for 242 yards and two touchdowns. He then impressed enough at spring combines to generate a few scholarship offers, and committed to San Diego State earlier this month. Now a senior, Morin's performance could make or break the season.
Newcomers: LB Tanner Ritayik, WR Chris Stratton.
Not to be missed: at Corona Centennial, Sept. 23. These programs headed in opposite directions last season. Chaparral won the Inland Division title in 2009 and was expected to repeat, but instead it was Centennial that ran the table, including a 45-12 victory at Chaparral in Week 3. On paper, it appears the Pumas have re-closed the gap but this game won’t be played on paper, rather the intimidating confines at Centennial.
Coach’s comment: “We’re excited to compete and can’t wait until Sept. 2,” Tukua said of the season opener against visiting San Bernardino Cajon. “The players and coaches did a lot of hard work in the offseason.”
Final analysis: The Pumas are motivated to put last season in the rearview mirror. Following the dismissal of their popular head coach, the administration made a wise move and promoted Tukua from defensive coordinator. He inherited enough quality players to move Chaparral back atop the Inland Division, and won't have to guide the Pumas through such a cut-throat nonleague schedule as last season. That should allow his team to build confidence heading into Southwestern League play. With a staunch defense and an experienced quarterback, the Pumas might just reclaim their elite status.
No. 23 Vista Murietta
By Dan Arritt
Few teams in the Southland have put their imprint on a region as quickly as Vista Murrieta. The Broncos emerged as the class of Southwest Riverside County just three years after the school opened in the fall of 2003 and have remained the team to beat in the area.
Vista Murrieta has won 24 of its last 25 Southwestern League games, secured four outright league titles in the last five years and advanced to the Inland Division championship game the last two seasons. The Broncos feature another star-studded team this season, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
Here’s a closer look at the Broncos:
Team: Vista Murrieta.
Coach: Coley Candaele, ninth season.
2010 Record: 12-2, lost to Corona Centennial in the Inland Division final.
Returning starters: 13 total. Six on offense, seven on defense.
Key players on offense: OL Corey Whitaker, RB Aaron Piecukonis, WR Cody Piecukonis, K Tyler Rausa.
Key players on defense: SS Su’a Cravens, DL Jeremy Castro, LB Randy Perez, DB Darion Williams.
Difference maker: Cravens is expected to be one of the top recruits in the nation for the class of 2013. He plays a disruptive style of defense, similar to what Troy Polamalu provides for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The 6-foot-1, 205 pounder accounted for eight sacks last season, three caused fumbles and five fumble recoveries. He has already been offered athletic scholarships by about a dozen schools, including UCLA.
Newcomers: QB Austin Mowatt, WR Esteban Ortuno, LB Jason Gardner.
Not to be missed: at Chaparral, Oct. 14. One of these teams has won the Southwestern League title each of the last five seasons and this year should be no exception. Both teams have plenty of returning talent on defense but the difference might be at quarterback, Chaparral has a returning starter and the Broncos do not.
Coach’s comment: “We have two new wide receivers and a new quarterback and how that’s going to affect our output, I don’t know yet. In the wonderful world of high school football, you’re just one injury away from going from contender to a guy just struggling to get by.”
Final analysis: With plenty of talent on the defensive side of the ball, the key to Vista Murrieta’s success this season will be putting enough points on the board. The Broncos averaged 37.5 points a game last season, but with quarterback Derrick Brown now at Washington, they might have to survive with half that average. A good indication of where Vista Murrieta stands will come in Week 1, when the Broncos play a much-improved Etiwanda team at Ontario Colony High.