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2017 FOOTBALL PREVIEW: Gahr still loaded on offense, eyes a deeper playoff run

By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter

GAHR GLADIATORS

8-3 overall last season, 3-2 in the San Gabriel Valley League, third place, lost to St. Anthony 24-21 in the Division 10 first round playoffs

22-29 overall last five seasons

Head coach: Greg Marshall (15th season, 75-70)

Lost 16 seniors out of 46 players from 2016 opening day roster

Last time missed the playoffs: 2015

2017 schedule

Aug. 25           Valley Christian (12-3 overall last season)

Sept. 1            @ Millikan (1-9)

Sept. 8            Cerritos (2-7)

Sept. 15          @ Artesia (6-4)

Sept. 22          St. Anthony (13-3)

Sept. 29          BYE

Oct. 6              @ Dominguez (1-9)

Oct. 13            @ Lynwood (4-6)

Oct. 20            Warren (2-7-1)

Oct. 27            @ Paramount (8-4)

Nov. 2             Downey (10-2)

Head coach Greg Marshall said he wasn’t surprised of the fast start the Gladiators got off to last season, winning their first seven games with relative ease in the first five. A lot of the seniors were starters as sophomores and took their lumps as Gahr High endured three consecutive 3-7 seasons. But Marshall said that, in the mindsets of the players, last season was their time.

“I thought we were ready to go,” Marshall said. “After some years of playing really down, we had a lot of seniors, we had a lot of juniors, we were like a regular football team as far as grades [went]. So, you hope that you should go first out of the gate and be able to play a football game.”

Marshall added that with the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section’s new divisional realignment to make it more balanced based on competitive equity, he knew his team wouldn’t have to face the likes of St. Francis High, but instead a team that was like Gahr.

OFFENSE

Having skilled players really hasn’t been the problem for the Gladiators in the past. Last season, the high-flying Gladiators scored 384 points and were held to under 20 points twice. But this season, the key concern will be at the quarterback position where they’ll have to replace the graduated Robert Frutos. The two signal callers that Gahr will put on the field have never played varsity football-senior Efrain Gonzalez and junior Nathan Rhodes. Because of that, Marshall stresses that it will be important that his team is able to run the ball early in the season to protect the quarterbacks, and to play defense. Marshall also said that Gonzalez has the edge to be the starting quarterback.

“I think that’s what Frutos did best, was get the ball out and get to our skilled guys in their hands and let them go and run fast,” Marshall said. “If [Gonzalez] and Nathan Rhodes can figure out how to get these guys the football, I think we can do some real damage again early.”

The backfield will be very experienced and solid with seniors Marquise Alexander, who will be a fullback, Miles Johnson, Ugonna Olumba and juniors Micah Bernard and LaJuan Miller, the latter moving up from the frosh/soph squad.

The receiving department will consist of senior Jake Frechette, Bernard and junior Michael Childress, all of whom will work out of the slot, and senior Justan Lucas, who will be a wideout. Rhodes will be another wideout when he’s not under center. Also in the mix for wideout will be senior Erik Jones when Rhodes is the signal caller. Marshall says he will have six or seven guys who are comfortable being a receiver.

“Once again, we have plenty of skilled guys,” Marshall said. “It’s always the same thing. We have enough linemen to compete.”

The offensive line will be occupied by senior left tackle Mason Hernandez, senior left guard Kyle Alsberry, senior center Nicholas Morales, senior right guard Roman Niumata and junior right tackle Nathan Grande. Morales will be at center for the first time as will Grande at his position. Marshall says if the linemen can block and execute, then the skilled guys will do the same things they’ve done in the past.

DEFENSE

It’s been several seasons since Gahr had the defense that it did in 2016. Traditionally known for giving up a ton of points, the Gladiators yielded 178 and allowed more than 30 points just once. On the other hand, the team gave up single digits five times and less than 20 another three times.

“Once again, those guys [on defense] started as sophomores and some as freshmen,” Marshall said. “This will be the third or second year having the same defense. We’re not like some schools where you run a defense and find a kid to plug in. Usually at Gahr, we have to change the defense because of the personnel. But we’ve been running the same defense and the kids have been playing it. So, I think that’s been a big improvement and this year is going to be the same because all those guys are back.”

The best nose tackle that Gahr has ever had, according to Marshall, is senior Ikenna Ahumibe. He will be joined on the line with Hernandez and senior Calvin Jones. All three are returning with Hernandez and Jones playing on varsity for three seasons.

The linebackers will be Alexander, who is in fourth season on varsity, Jones, Olumba, a three-year starter, and senior Renso Sandoval, another three-year starter who could have played on varsity as a freshman.

In the secondary, senior Aaron Hawk will start at free safety while Bernard, Johnson, and senior Jeremy Mathews vying for the corner positions and have started at some time. Marshall said the only question mark in the secondary will come at the other safety position where senior Brad Harbin is the only newcomer on defense.

“If we go out in the first couple of games and give up a lot of points, we’re going to be very disappointed,” Marshall said. “And I think our defense will be too. [The defense] fits them; it’s designed for them. As long as we don’t give up the deep ball, we’ll be pretty tough.”

SCHEDULE

The only change to the schedule, except for trading venues from last season, will come in the fifth game where Gahr trades Fullerton High with St. Anthony High in a rematch of last season’s first round playoff game. Gahr led the Saints 21-7 at the half and was driving late for a potential game-winning touchdown before that drive stalled with a turnover. St. Anthony would then drive down the field and kick the game-winning field goal at the end.

The first game of the season with Valley Christian High, the defending Division 9 champions, will say a lot about both teams early on. Gahr stunned the Crusaders last season, not so much with the win, but the 41 points it scored on the road. The game was put away in the third quarter when the Gladiators scored 21 points.

“It’s good because we go out of the chute with Valley Christian,” Marshall said. “It kind of shows who you really are. There’s no hiding behind that one.

“I didn’t think we were going to beat Valley Christian like that,” Marshall added. “No one thought that. I’m not thinking that this year either. They’re really legit, and I thought we were too. But you know how high school games are. Every opportunity worked out for us and there were some things that didn’t work out for them.”

If Gahr can get past its first two opponents, then the next two should be easier, on paper, against a pair of ABC School District rivals that the Gladiators have heavily dominated over the past 19 seasons, going a combined 25-12 against Artesia High and Cerritos High. That includes a 12-game winning streak against the latter with half of those wins being shutouts.

Once the Gladiators get into San Gabriel Valley League action, which comes after their customary middle of the season bye, they hit the road against Dominguez High and Lynwood High. Gahr posted a rare shutout against Dominguez last season, just the third win over the Dons in the past 15 meetings. In Gahr’s 13-9 victory over Lynwood last season, the team trailed 6-0 at the half and didn’t score a touchdown until the fourth quarter.

“St. Anthony will look a lot like our league schools,” Marshall said. “If we go out and play St. Anthony and lay an egg, then we’re going to have a hard time in league”

HOMECOMING

Gahr has historically struggled with Warren High, especially on the road. The last time the Gladiators hosted the Bears, it was homecoming night and Gahr was on the wrong end of a 42-21 decision. Gahr’s last homecoming victory was in 2012, a 42-35 triumph over Lynwood. It marked just the third homecoming win against a league opponent in the past 19 seasons.

DIVISION 10

Gahr is one of 37 schools in Division 10 this season and only two opponents are in divisions lower than Division 10, which means Gahr will be challenged in 2017. Three of the five league schools are in Division 4 or 5, including the last game of the season when the Gladiators host Downey High, a Division 4 school which won 10 games last season.

“The good thing this year, and I’m on the football advisory committee, is that they’re going to actually take in consideration your CalPreps.com ratings,” Marshall said. “Last year, we had a very high rating for our division in the state. If we can get [to the playoffs], I think we’ll have a high ranking in our division, because we’re not going to play any teams lower than sixth once we get to league.”