Bright and early with the morning dew still fresh on the grass then later into the gorgeous sunset that turns to dark, the sounds of football could be heard throughout the Central Valley – the first week of practice officially started July 31.
Hopping into my car and driving to all five of the Clovis Unified schools with my trusty notepad and iPhone in hand, I was able to get an early look at the teams and check out what’s good on the field.
Not only did I have the pleasure of talking with all the head coaches and some of their assistants but I could feel and hear the enthusiasm shouting from the players themselves. There is truly a sense of optimism this time of year and it’s contagious.
The first scrimmages of the year will start on Friday, Aug. 17 and the coaches would love to have everyone get an early glimpse of what their teams will have to offer this season.
So as we approach the opening games of the year on Aug. 25 (yes, it’s here that quick!), let’s take a look at what I saw during the week.
As I arrived at the Golden Eagles’ practice in the evening session on Monday, Aug. 1, one of the first things that caught my eye while walking toward the practice field was senior quarterback Adrian Martinez dressed in practice shorts, a Clovis West football T-shirt, black socks and cleats talking to junior quarterback Dante Chachere. Martinez was casually holding a football in his left hand with no helmet in sight. That’s because the Tennessee verbal commit is still recovering from shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum and is not cleared to practice, play, or throw.
Then the whistle blew and as the two jogged toward the middle of the football field, Martinez turned to me and said, “Here’s the future right here” pointing to Chachere.
Well, the future is now as Chachere is going to be immediately thrust into the starting quarterback role, for perhaps the entire year, in a season that a group of seniors have been salivating for since they were sophomores playing on varsity.
After a heartbreaking 34-28 playoff overtime loss to Central to end the year last season, the team made it its mission this summer to never have that feeling again – and they have a group of seniors who are on board.
They’ll be led on offense by Rodney Wright III, who will line up at slot and running back, receivers Nick Coleman, Chad Day, Hayden Leach and Fresno State commit Ricardo Arias, a transfer from McLane who is a game-changer at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds. Wright, who holds an offer from the Air Force Academy, is the son of former Fresno State star receiver Rodney Wright who is also a coach on the team.
Golden Eagles coach George Petrissans is extremely bullish about the defense, led by the Schramm brothers, Dustin and DJ, both D-I college recruits who will anchor the linebacker position along with Thomas Curran. Dakota and Jayden Helms will be roaming the field as safeties along with Tykee Woods at corner. DJ Schramm has verbally committed to Boise State.
And they return perhaps the best kicker and punter in the Valley in Eli Riofrio who was sore after booting over 50 field goal attempts in the first day of practice.
They open the season at Liberty-Bakersfield on Aug. 25.
In the morning session on Tuesday, Aug. 2 at Buchanan there was already a sense of urgency on the field with half pads on – in their 11-11 drill to end the session, players were flying to the ball and were getting after it. In fact, sophomore running back sensation Kendall Milton took on a defender with a stiff arm that elicited “oohs” and “ahhhs” from players and onlookers.
The Bears have slowly been on the upswing after their disastrous 1-9 season in 2013 and finished 7-5 in 2017 in Matt Giordano’s first season as head coach. Giordano, a 2001 Buchanan graduate, played seven seasons in the NFL and won a Super Bowl ring with the Indianapolis Colts in 2006.
In addition to Milton, who received offers from USC, UCLA and Washington this summer, the Bears have senior Trevor Ervin who will see more time at linebacker than running back this year. Senior Ty Hall brings quickness to the quarterback position.
Anchoring the defense is senior defensive back Jack Wilkins, who tied a Central Section record with four interceptions again Clovis last year, linebacker Keenan Wolf and lineman Toa Scanlon.
In addition, the Bears now have one of the top two-way players in the Central Section in junior transfer Brock Jones, a gifted athlete who will patrol his safety position like a hawk and also play slot on offense and return kicks. Jones picked off a pass on the session’s final play, a leaping catch of an underthrown ball. Junior quarterback Carson Bailey has also transferred from Clovis North.
At the end of the morning practice session the team and coaches retreat under a shaded tree where each coach points out something they liked from the practice and something they see that needs improvement.
The Bears open the season at Hanford on Aug. 25.
On Thursday morning I headed to Clovis High, the original Clovis high school, the school rich with tradition and the football field named after Daryle Lamonica.
Coach Rich Hammond likes to start early and beat the heat, with practice beginning at 7:30 a.m. – a wise choice indeed as the temperatures reached 106 later that day.
One of the first things I noticed were the amount of players and coaches, an impressive sight to behold with Hammond making the rounds, checking out his offensive linemen, the defense and finally the 11-11 session that pretty much all the TRAC schools end practice with, at least at the beginning of the year.
And, as always is the case at Clovis, I saw a lot of big ol’ boys at the practice including Cole Acevedo (6-foot-3, 300), Matt Olff (6-foot-6, 280) and Avery Castillo (6-foot-1, 230). Notably missing, though, was offensive lineman Seth Nevills (6-foot-4, 280), the undefeated heavyweight three-time state wrestling champ has decided not to play football his senior season, instead focusing on a few national level wrestling tournaments during the fall.
On offense, there will be a quarterback battle before the Cougars’ opening game at Burbank in Sacramento between senior Payton Mayer and junior Jason Hunt. Senior Cole Roberts is slated to be the feature running back and junior wide receiver Matt Sanchez will be a main target.
However, what caught my attention the most was freshman manchild Kenau Williams and his 6-foot-4, 240 pound frame. The defensive lineman is expected to get a bulk of playing time and is ready to handle the competition according to Coach Hammond. Remember the name.
The morning after the surprising afternoon rain on Aug. 3, I checked out the Friday practice at Clovis North and met new head coach Benny Martinez. And if one thing is for certain, Martinez bleeds Clovis North football.
With the program from the school’s inception in 2007, Martinez was literally right in the middle of practice, blowing the whistle during and after drills, correcting and encouraging. The Broncos are coming off a season that saw them go 6-6 overall and 2-3 in league, and the 2017 season will see a lot of new faces on the field.
First of all, there will be a quarterback battle, at least before the season’s first game against Sunnyside at home, between junior Bo Blackburn and sophomore lefty DJ Frampton. Assuming running back duties is senior Josh Gonzalez.
At wide receiver the team will be relying on Nick Caviglia, Kurt Cobseth, Derek Bell and Brendan Bechtel. Seniors Noah Riley and Trent Lindsay will anchor the linebackers and will both see some time at tight end.
To cap off my week of watching the first Clovis Unified practices of the 2017 season, I headed to Clovis East for its Friday evening session and right away I noticed a change from season’s past – numbers.
No, not numbers on the back of their practice jerseys, but numbers as in quantity. After years of dwindling players (and wins), I spied at least 50 varsity players at four different stations on the practice field, all being coached up. And the main reason for this change in attitude, intensity and structure – new head coach Ryan Reynolds.
Reynolds inherited a program that suited up as little as 22 players in some games towards the end of last season, and hasn’t won a TRAC game since 2009. That’s hard to fathom for a once-proud program that was a powerhouse in the 2000s when it won six TRAC titles and a pair of Valley championships.
Reynolds knows it will be a process to get back to the level he expects. The T-Wolves’ bright spot will be senior quarterback Gerard Mendez, a mobile quarterback with a strong arm. Romello Knight, Trevin Qualls and Reggie Williams will be weapons on offense and see some time on defense as well. Marcus Washington, the standout running back who started as a freshman, transferred to Central.
The Timberwolves open the season at St. Ignatius in San Francisco.