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By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter
1-8 overall last season, 1-5 in the Suburban League, sixth place
4-44 overall last five seasons
Co-head coaches: Daniel Mesa and Barry Thomas (first season)
Lost 18 seniors out of 43 players from 2015 opening day roster
Last time made the playoffs: 2001
Sept. 2 @ Bolsa Grande (0-10 overall last season)
Sept. 9 Gahr (3-7)
Sept. 16 @ Beverly Hills (1-9)
Sept. 23 @ La Mirada (13-3)
Sept. 30 Mayfair (7-4)
Oct. 7 BYE
Oct. 14 @ Norwalk (5-6)
Oct. 20 Artesia (3-7)
Oct. 28 @ Bellflower (4-6)
Nov. 4 John Glenn (0-10)
Fans and followers of Cerritos High football hope the old saying that goes ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’ does not take place in 2016. For the third straight season, the Dons have new co-head coaches in Daniel Mesa and Barry Thomas. Together, they hope to bring some rays of sunshine to a program that has been dark for over a decade. Cerritos has had two or fewer wins in 10 of last 12 seasons and has been victorious in Suburban League action more than once just one time during the same time period.
Mesa, who was the Cerritos quarterbacks and linebackers coach last season while being promoted to offensive coordinator, and Thomas, who was the defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator, were on former head coach Jason Anderson’s staff last season. Thomas first coached at Huntington Beach High from 2001-2005 before moving to Millikan High in 2006 and 2007 where he worked under Kirk Diego.
“It was not something I expected,” Thomas said. “I got the job on June 2, which was really late. Things came up with coach Anderson that were unexpected. Personally, I was kind of nervous about whoever comes in [and] are they going to have a staff already? So that was kind of my incentive to be interested in the coaching position because of the uncertainty.
“And I really enjoy the environment,” he continued. “I enjoy the kids, I like this program and I enjoy being the underdog. I was at Huntington Beach when they weren’t really good. I was at Millikan when we were an also-ran in the Moore League. I kind of relish that kind of thing.”
For the past two or three seasons, the Dons have been fielding teams that have had more sophomores and juniors than seniors. Now, most of them are seniors and juniors which should lift the team to better results.
“We got some younger guys playing time,” Thomas said. So we have some guys who know what the varsity game is all about. That was big for us last year. Mostly out of necessity, we had to be all hands on deck because of our numbers. But it was a positive because there are a lot of guys that know what to expect out of varsity football.”
The Dons scored just 84 points last season and reached double figures three times. The most they scored in any game was 22 points at John Glenn High on Oct. 29. In that game, it was 16-16 going into the fourth quarter.
Whereas Cerritos had gone with a double-wing rushing attack under Anderson and former head coach Darin Owens, Thomas says the team will be going to more of a spread offense in 2016, something that will fit junior quarterback Colby Nielsen just fine. Thomas says he understands the offense and knows what everyone is supposed to do. Plus, Nielsen comes from a family that has produced a pair of signal callers who set state records while playing for Gahr High nearly 10 years ago (Casey and Corey Nielsen). Senior Gianni Vargas and sophomore Jon Cortez will backup Nielsen.
Leading the ground game will be senior Kaliq Hatcher and junior Ryder Eddy for the most part. Senior Ignacio Cobian will also get a lot of action, making the Dons a triple threat either in the backfield or when Nielsen airs it out. Hatcher has the ability to be a 1,000-yard rusher. Senior Demare Franklin and junior Andrew Hernandez will also get some touches
There will be a lot of competition to fill the five positions on the offensive line, according to Thomas. Senior center Matt Mendiola, who was the team’s most valuable player last season, and senior Abel Perez will be the top two returning players. Seniors Shreejit Bhattarai, who started a couple of games last season and Sterling Thompson, junior Codi Guinto and sophomore Javier Campuzano will also vie for spots on the line.
This offense has the potential to be better than that of last season, according to Thomas. But the Dons have to score more than one or two touchdowns a game, and they have to score in the first half, where they scored 22 points all of last season.
“In my opinion, scheme-wise, it is [better],” Thomas said of his offense. “If something is not working, we have other options to attack other areas of the field. So that right there is a step up, I believe. We’re hoping that if [plan] A doesn’t work, we can work [plan] B or [plan] C.”
As dismal as the offense was last season, the defense was even worse, yielding 379 points with opponents torching the Dons for least 35 points seven times. Just like the offensive line, there will be heavy competition on the defensive line with seniors J.J. Ko, Peter Lee, junior Jymel Johnson, who Thomas believes is a “special athlete”, and sophomore Matt Ryan as the top candidates. The secondary will be handled by returning veterans Eddy, who was a cornerback last season but will move to strong safety, and last season’s free safety Vargas. Cobian will most likely play cornerback along with senior Raj Singh. Junior Eric Baker, a transfer from Gahr High, figures to be a defensive back.
Senior Josh Cruz is the top returning middle linebacker and as Thomas puts it, ‘has everything that you need’. However, Thomas is going to use him in several ways and says he’ll pass rush, pass drop and will do some man-to-man covering. Guinto will move from the defensive line to be another middle linebacker while Thompson will be on the outside. Senior Antonio Galindo also figures to get some time in the middle.
“The kids trusting coaches is huge,” Thomas said. “So, we wanted to keep as many coaches on staff as we could, especially being [hired] that late, it’s tough to get coaches.”
“I work on campus, so I see them pretty often,” he later added. “I understand that it’s tough. I had some growing pains last year because I was probably the fourth defensive backs coach that they had. So it’s tough to gain that trust.”
For the third straight season, Cerritos will go with a nine-game slate. The Dons have won just two non league games in the past nine seasons but have the potential to win two of their first three games before meeting defending state champion La Mirada High. Beverly Hills High and Bolsa Grande High are new opponents that Cerritos has not faced in at least 18 years, if at all. Thomas says he likes the matchups against Beverly Hills and Bolsa Grande. The schedule tends to get a little easier once the Dons are done with the three playoff teams from the league after the Norwalk High tilt.
“Gahr is a tough game because it is a city rivalry, and historically, they have been better than us,” Thomas said. “What reason does anybody have to believe that we’re going to be better than them just because we changed our offense? It doesn’t make sense. So, we’re going to have our work cut out with those guys. They’re very good.”
Thomas is quick to remind his players a lot that two things they can control are their effort and their attitude and went on to say that if one person has a bad attitude, then everyone else will follow. He says that of the players have a good effort and great attitude, then the results will be pretty good against Beverly Hills and Bolsa Grande.
“Glenn is going to be a lot better,” Thomas said. “When we played them [last year], they fought us tooth and nail. They had us down for a long time. We put the ball on the ground a lot. They get after it. They want to force turnovers and that’s huge. And what we’re doing now, there’s a lot more opportunities for a turnover.”
The last time Cerritos schedule Artesia High for its homecoming, it was cancelled when the team forfeited all six league games out of concerns for the safety of its players That was in 2012 and the Dons were outscored 234-0 in their four non league games. Cerritos did knock off Artesia 35-13 in 2010 for the only other homecoming game with the Pioneers in at least 18 years. Since 1998, Cerritos has won seven of 18 games against Artesia and since 1998, the Dons are 6-8 against current Suburban League opponents in homecoming games.
Cerritos may feel it is in the easiest division under the new California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section format. But the bottom line is it still has to win enough games in order to advance to the playoffs for the first time since 2001, the longest playoff drought out of all league teams. There are 84 teams in the division and Cerritos is ranked 329th out of 401 CIF-SS schools that field a football team. Three teams that Cerritos plays are also in Division 13.
“If you look at the numbers, they’re accurate,” Thomas said. “It’s not like someone doesn’t like us or anything like that. If you look at the numbers, the numbers are what they are. The history shows Cerritos hasn’t been pretty good record-wise.”
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