Following finishes of 4-6 in 2010 and 3-7 in 2011 after going 10-0 three seasons ago, coach Matt Shrout said players are refocused on reaching the playoffs and beyond.
“I think we’re on our way up, and the future looks good for us. We want to let people know we are still around and ready to win,” he said. “Players worked hard during the off-season to push themselves in the weight room, and I think that shows, because we had great conditioning when we started camp.”
On offense, the scheme isn’t changing, Shrout said. The team will run its traditional double-wing offense, which relies heavily on a good running game.
The main difference, he noted, are the experienced players that will be filling the offensive roles. Senior quarterback Luke Hanna will return under center, while senior fullback Bruce Russell is expected to carry a sizable portion of the load.
Ball possession and “getting one or two more first downs a game” will be priority, Shrout said.
“This year, he’s a veteran quarterback with a year under his belt,” he said. “We have some experience on the O-line and some fast young talent coming up to the team, so we’re hoping for a good start.”
Defense has been the “Achilles heel” of the team the past several seasons, Shrout said, though that’s a trend he doesn’t expect to continue. Russell and senior Austin Westfall each return as starting linebackers, while senior Josh Bongiovanni is expected to be faster and leaner at the nose guard position after a productive summer in the weight room.
Shrout said defensive success will boil down to keeping teams off the scoreboard.
“We should have more interceptions this year, I think, because of the better reaction time,” he said. “I’m really looking to how this defense reacts, and hopefully we’ll be more energetic, and it will show because we’ll give up less points.”
While a core group of veteran players make up the 3-5-3 defensive formation, Shrout noted that they are supported by talented, yet young, underclassmen.
“They aren’t afraid to make mistakes, which is great, but they will make them,” he said. “They have to mature really fast if we’re going to have success long-term, so we’ll see how that goes.”
Westfall said the senior class accepts the challenge of molding the greener players.
“Being a leader is being a role model and to speak the way you teach,” he said. “So if I say, ‘Let’s go out and hit someone,’ I have to go out and hit that person hard. It’s kind of like lead by example.”
Rigorous summer workouts, Westfall said, have prepared many of the players for the season.
“I mean, we may not be the biggest team, but we definitely are the best-conditioned, the hardest-hitting and hardest-working team I’ve seen in my four years here,” he said.
With the team’s stadium undergoing construction this year, the Bulldogs will play all their games on the road, including home games at West High. But Shrout said that “hasn’t even been mentioned by players.”
“I think it will help the kids breed confidence, and then we’ll be a team to watch out for,” he said.
In addition to playing their “home” games at West High, the Bulldogs will play against the crosstown rival Wolf Pack in a Sept. 21 preseason game. Tracy High will play Kimball High on Sept. 14, and will begin league play against Franklin in Stockton on Oct. 5.
But first up is the Friday, Aug. 24, preseason opener against Sierra of Manteca, which kicks off at 7:15 p.m. at Sierra.
Addition by subtraction
Sometimes, you have to lose a little, so you can gain a lot.
That’s been the offseason story for senior Josh Bongiovanni. As starting nose tackle for the Tracy High football team, Bongiovanni is supposed to be the big man in the middle of the defensive line who stops the other team’s running game.
But last year, there was something slower about Bongiovanni, according to coach Matt Shrout.
“He started for us last year, but didn’t do all that well,” he said. “He was pretty slow out there at some points.”
Bongiovanni changed that this summer by hitting the weight room and dropping 25 pounds during the last six months.
“I feel great, I have more movement, and I’m just in better shape this year,” he said. “The coaches said I wasn’t getting everything I could out of myself, so I took that as a challenge and worked hard.”
Bongiovanni said his speed has increased and he is now squatting more than 400 pounds. His efforts have been rewarded, as Shrout is letting him play left guard on the offensive line in addition to his defensive duties.
“He wanted to play last year, but he didn’t have it,” Shrout said. “This year, he looks good. He’s been working his butt off and it shows because he’s way stronger.”
The coach sees Bongiovanni making an immediate impact in what should be a run-first offense.
For Bongiovanni, he’s looking forward to engaging linebackers and defensive backs as the main pulling guard in the run plays. He also wants to build on his one sack from last year.
“No matter where I’m playing, I just want to go out and smash someone,” he said.
Fuel from the backfield
No matter what’s happening on the football field, Bruce Russell is usually at the point of attack.
This season, the senior mainstay at linebacker will have even more of an impact for the Tracy High Bulldogs, as he is expected to get a bulk of the handoffs on offense as the team’s starting fullback, according to coach Matt Shrout.
“We’re going to be running the ball a lot, so the fullback-quarterback relationship is going to be important,” he said. “He needs to step up for us.”
Russell said he spent the offseason working off the hangover of a 3-7 season from a year ago. He said it’s an approach many of his teammates have adopted, as well.
“We’re bigger, stronger, faster after last year because that made everyone mad and we just came out 10 times harder this year,” he said.
The second-leading rusher from last year is promised to get even more looks in the team’s run-first double wing offense.
“Our line is good this year and they’re big, so we expect them to beat up everyone,” Russell said. “I just gotta run the ball hard and put the team on my back and keep everyone on the same page and doing their jobs.”
As starting middle linebacker, Russell will be instrumental in molding the young Bulldogs underclassmen on both sides of the ball.
“You can’t just talk to someone — you gotta do it,” he said. “That’s why we got to be one each other. Criticize everyone so they play at their level, and don’t take any plays off.”
When asked which team on the Bulldogs schedule he wants to beat the most, Russell calmly and sternly replied, “Everyone.”
“You gotta play hard on all sides, you can’t take any prisoners,” he said. “We want to smash people.”