Over the past three years, including their first year as a junior varsity team, the Jaguars have strived to become a force in the Valley Oak League. With two years of tough losses on the varsity level, this is the year that players have had in their sights, according to senior quarterback Zack Johnston.
“This year it’s going to mean that much more, because all of the seniors have the same hearts from playing all four years together,” Johnson said. “Not a lot has changed in our routine, but playing the game, it’s going to be a lot different on the field with the intensity level.”
Kimball coach Steve Anastasio said as sophomores and juniors playing on the varsity level in 2010, the team had only 25 players and went 1-9 overall and 1-6 in the VOL. But they learned how to play against bigger, faster, more experienced teams.
In 2011, when the Jaguars went 2-8 overall and 1-6 in the VOL, it was still a relatively young team. But the Jaguars, with 38 players, were tougher to beat. They logged their first crosstown win, 29-22 over Tracy High, on Sept. 16, 2011.
Now Kimball has a full-fledged varsity team.
After having only a couple dozen players in 2010 and less than 40 on the roster last year, Anastasio had more than 60 try out this year. By the end of the second week of practice, he expected that roster to be cut down to 50 or so.
About half of those players are returning seniors. Eight of those seniors, including Johnson, Alex Toledo, Austin Griffith, Trae James, Ismael Gutierrez, Evan Owens, Charles Walker and William Snell, were starters on both sides of the ball during their sophomore year in 2010.
“The years past, the majority of the team didn’t have too much experience on the varsity level,” senior running back and linebacker Toledo said. “The JV guys who came up from last year, they saw it at (team camp in) Fresno and picked up their pace, too. We’re going to have a pretty solid team this year.”
Toledo is one of eight players who spent their sophomore year getting an education from more established teams, and now are ready to show their VOL and crosstown rivals that they are bigger, faster and better.
Anastasio is happy to see the team’s growth, but he has bigger expectations.
“We want to see big things from them,” he said. “We’re pushing them a lot harder, holding them accountable for their actions, trying to teach them not just to be football players but to be great young men.”
Among the returning players, Owens was responsible for the bulk of the Jaguars’ running game in 2011, as he averaged 66.3 yards per game and 5.43 yards per carry last year. Toledo also took on running back and receiver duties.
Griffith is Kimball’s multipurpose player, and turned out to be reliable as a receiver, with 25 receptions last year for an average of 32.8 yards per game. He also ran back kickoff returns and was effective as a defensive back.
Senior Dario Valadez also returned kickoffs and punts, and was Kimball’s top receiver with 20 catches and 36 yards per game, on average.
Also returning as a senior is lineman Nathan Pearlman, who said that he and the other linemen are ready to make this their best year yet.
“The guys next to me, I have complete faith in them. We just go in as a brotherhood, and we can hit everyone,” he said.
Returning defenders also include senior Logan Finley, who plays defensive end and is also the backup quarterback, senior defensive back Christian Lopez and linebacker Steven Mendoza.
The VOL has eight teams, so the Jaguars will have a short preseason. It will include their opening game at Patterson High on Aug. 31. The crosstown games will see the Jaguars host West on Sept. 7 at Don Nicholson Stadium, and visit Tracy High on Sept. 14 at West High.
The first two league games will be the toughest, Anastasio expects, as the Jaguars face VOL 2011 runner-up Manteca on Sept. 21 at home and VOL 2011 champion Oakdale — which went 10-0 in the regular season last year and finished as the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III runner-up — away on Sept. 28.
But Anastasio said the time to worry about VOL rivals will be after the preseason.
“Right now, the only thing I’m trying to preach as a coach is that it’s one game. It’s Patterson,” he said. “Anytime they try to think ahead, we pull them back. We’ve got to win one game, and then we’ll move forward one game at a time.”
Steady at the helm
Kimball senior quarterback Zack Johnson has been the team’s offensive leader since the first year of Jaguar football, when he was a freshman quarterback on the junior varsity team.
Johnson continued to grow into his role as starting quarterback as a sophomore on the varsity team, staying cool under pressure, and always ready to keep coming back against more experienced teams.
He knew all along that his team would become competitive in the Valley Oak League.
“Playing as a sophomore against 18-year-olds, that just gave me that much more confidence right now,” Johnson said.
Last year, even though he missed a couple games because of an injury, he was still the team’s rushing leader, averaging 71.7 yards on the ground. He also averaged a 51.6 passing completion percentage for 152.6 yards per game in the air.
“At camp I saw that Zack has improved even from last year,” lineman Nathan Pearlman said.
Just as his teammates have faith in his leadership, Johnson is confident his team wants to win every bit as much as he does.
“For being together all four years, they’re like brothers to me. I know they have my back at every position, no matter what play we run,” Johnston said. “If it’s fourth and one, third and two, I’m going to believe in all of our lineman to get the push so we get those extra yards.”
Kimball senior linebacker Steven Mendoza said this is the year that all of his defensive skills will be put to the test. And so far, he likes what he has seen in camp.
“Our defense could give our offense a good show in practice,” he said. “This year, we’ve gotten better with our line. We’re also very disciplined this year.
“I’m still learning and looking forward to learning more. We’re just taking it day-by-day,” he said.
Mendoza averaged 7.3 tackles per game last year as a linebacker and is set to lead his team defensively this year.
It starts with the daily workouts, which have intensified, he said.
“We’re doing a lot more running. We’re doing a lot more punishment. If you don’t show up you have to pay for it,” he said. He has also adopted coach Steve Anastasio’s one-game-at-a-time approach.
“Our first focus is the Patterson game. That’s the number-one thing on our mind,” he said.
Mendoza said that he has grown into his role staring with his freshman year.
“When I first came here, I was just a lineman, and they moved me to linebacker. I’ve learned everything from this school, everything I know about linebacker, starting from freshman (year) to now.”
Mendoza added that his personal goal for the year is to put more trust in his teammates.
“I can let the linemen do their job, let the outside backers do their job and I’ll do my job, and we’ll bring home the W.”