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MARINA – Establishing a culture. Lay the foundations for the future. Along the way, there were likely some heart palpitations for both head coaches.
It never happens overnight. Not everyone has the stomach for growing pains. However, players who have stood their ground and fought through adversity are seeing the fruits of their labor.
“A lot of kids left after that first year,” Rancho San Juan football coach Troy Emrey said. “Those who have remained faithful are reaping the rewards. It is the culmination of hard work and belief in the program.
Eighteen months after failing to produce even a first down in a shortened three-game spring season, the Trailblazers are in uncharted waters. And this is a good thing.
The same goes for Marina, who after restarting her program after a two-year hiatus from college football, created a wave of passion and pride.
Marina and Rancho San Juan, who are both undefeated, will square off at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Seaside High in a final non-league tune-up.
“I appreciate the seniors last fall who stayed and helped us build a base, creating an atmosphere that you see this season,” said Marina coach Jason Dennis, who only fielded a team. JV than last fall. “Their sacrifices have not gone unnoticed.”
While no one is unaware of the fact that no team has faced a division title contender so far, no one doubts that the Mariners and Trailblazers are on the rise.
Rancho San Juan (3-0) has already rewritten the single-season school high for points in just three games with 140, averaging 46.3 points per game, as Marina’s defense allowed 30 points — all season.
“The support has been overwhelming in terms of our community,” Dennis said. “Kids like to hear in school announcements that we won.”
In fact, talks have started about installing a multi-purpose synthetic surface at Marina to allow them to host home games for football and other sports in the future.
“Oh, that’s more than a rumour,” Dennis insisted.
The paths taken by both coaches to shape their programs are similar. Rancho San Juan only featured a junior varsity program in its first season four years ago.
A dozen players on this year’s roster were on the team the following season that outscored 162-0 in three games during the pandemic-shortened 2021 college spring season.
“These kids know and remember how bad it can be,” Emrey said. “All of them have worked so hard to put themselves and this program in this position. Success is not owned, it is rented.
The spotlight on both Marina (3-0) and the Trailblazers hasn’t changed the uncompromising approach in preparing for each week. On the contrary, expectations were high.
“It’s part of the strong culture we’ve developed,” Emrey said. “These kids love to be pushed, love challenges. Marina provides this. This (Marina) is not the same team we saw at the jamboree.
Emrey was referring to the two teams that faced off in a four-team jamboree in mid-August in Alisal.
“We’re a different team,” Dennis said. “But Rancho is also not the same team that we faced. For us, a light went on in our opening game from a defensive perspective. Things started to click.
The Mariners put physicality first, as evidenced by Saturday’s win over Cupertino’s Monta Vista when they stopped them five times inside the 5-yard line.
Mikey Thomas and Miguel Cano have been demons on Marina’s defense, while Tony Fuiava flies in a hybrid position, returning a fumble from 55 yards for a touchdown last week. Jardyn Lagrimas has three interceptions.
Having done a solid job of containing opponents on the ground, the Mariners are unlikely to face a more gifted powerhouse this fall than Peyton Hatten.
The 225-pound senior is posting fantastic-type numbers this fall with 605 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, putting him on pace for 2,015 yards and 42 touchdowns.
“It’s not about stopping it, it’s about containment,” Dennis said. “He arms people stiffly, runs with a low center of gravity, freaks people out. The kid can move. You can’t tackle him.
Because Hatten also lines up as a defensive end for Rancho San Juan, he only carried the ball 50 times.
“We’re managing his workload,” Emrey said. “We have a bunch of other kids in the program who are dynamic on the ball and have earned throw-ins.”
Emrey was talking about Donovan Gomez, whose first two carries in last week’s 51-6 win at Sobrato resulted in touchdowns for 21 and 42 yards.
However, no one has been more punishing in running the ball than Hatten, who averages 12 yards every time he touches the ball, with more than half of those yards after being touched.
“If you don’t bring the aggression, it’s going to be a long night,” Dennis said. “You have to stay low. We insisted all week on wrapping it up and letting everyone come to the party.
Emrey saw flashes of Hatten’s potential last fall, in which he scored touchdowns in four of the team’s last five games, finishing with eight touchdowns and just under 500 rushing yards.
“Petyon has worked hard to get in shape to have the success he’s had so far this year,” Emrey said. “He plays faster than most kids his size.”
As buoyant as the offense was in the Trailblazers’ first season, the Trailblazers’ defense earned a signature win last week by limiting Sobrato to six points.
Linebacker Anthony Abarca was a threat in the middle, with Ian Rey in the secondary, while Richard Fuentes, Andre Nevarez, Dennis Uribe, John Wood and Hatten anchored the front seven.
“This band is mentally tough,” Emrey said. “They are confident in their ability to execute. We were down throughout the first half of our opener. This unit has shown the resilience to play hard.”
What the Trailblazers will find is an opponent who fluctuates their offense, with two quarterbacks seeing the same time, and JJ Guevara occasionally lining up in the Wildcat lineup.
Guevara, who plays the new wideback position, caught a 71-yard touchdown pass last week on a flea flicker play, one of many trick plays Dennis has installed.
“Marina’s offense capitalizes on misdirection and gets explosive plays,” Emrey said. “These kids are playing (at a level) that wasn’t there at the jamboree.”
Although Dennis feels the attack is still searching for its identity, taking better care of the ball will be essential to maneuvering forward. Mental errors reduced Marina’s arsenal in attack.
“One game won’t define us,” Dennis said. “But it’s a gauge. I told those kids it was a big game. It’s good to read the newspaper. But don’t dwell on it. Focus on what we can control.
THIS WEEKEND’S GAMES
North Salinas at Aptos, 7:30 p.m.
North County at Harbor, 5 p.m.
Seaside at Salinas, 7 p.m.
Stevenson at King City, 7:30 p.m.
Greenfield at Pacific Grove, 7:30 p.m.
Gonzales at Soledad, 7:30 p.m.
Monterey at Hollister, 7:30 p.m.
Soquel v Palma at Rabobank, 7:30 p.m.
Alvarez at Carmel, 2 p.m.
Alisal at Scotts Valley, 2 p.m.
Rancho San Juan vs. Marina at Seaside, 7:30 p.m.
Feather River at MPC, 1 p.m.