MODESTO — The 2013 season cannot arrive fast enough for the Modesto Junior College Pirates.
They're excited, motivated and anxious especially the 10 returning starters to chart a new direction after four straight Valley Conference losses to close 2012.
The slide resulted in Modesto's 1-4 league record and 4-6 overall, its first losing season since 2003. By the time the 48-37 Week 10 loss at San Joaquin Delta was finished, the MJC backfield was deciminated by injuries and the defense again was rocked backward.
Bring on '13, the Pirates say. They'll walk into Stadium '76 with more than a little determination Saturday night against the Merced Blue Devils.
"Let go last year and continue on," MJC sophomore slotback Ricky Fuentes summarized this week. "Last year ended rough, but we're looking good as a whole. I've been waiting for this since January. There's no complaining and a lot of excitment."
There's also no shortage of challenges ahead. Conference foes American River, Fresno and Delta are seventh, eighth and ninth, respectively, in California preseason rankings. Non-league opponents Butte (No. 2) and San Mateo (No. 11) further melt Modesto's margin for error.
"If you look at the rankings, that is our schedule," said Sam Young, who enters his 14th season as head coach. "Our goals will come down to improvement and playing at a high level."
Young's teams have won 83 games (83-56), five shy of Fred Earle's school record. A fast start, not unlike last year's 3-0 September run, will position Young to reset one of MJC's most admired milestones.
More important to him, however, are the numbers those four consecutive league losses last fall, none by more than 11 points.
That tells Young and his staff that improvement is quite do-able.
"Other than San Mateo (a 60-35 loss), we were in every game," Young said. "Our focus has been on protecting the ball on offense and creating turnovers on defense."
MJC's turnover ratio in 2012 was minus-2, not the best but far from terrible. Young referred to the timing of the mistakes, some of them late in close games. Sustaining a high performance level through the course of a long game is targeted.
If accomplished, Modesto can return to its success pre-2012.
A breakdown of the 2013 Pirates:
The offense wasn't the problem last year. Modesto's fast-tempo spread attack was ranked first in Northern California in yardage (510 yards per game), first downs (28) and total plays (834). The result was 41.3 points per game, No. 2 in NorCal.
Returning to anchor that attack is quarterback TeeJay Gordon, MJC's only returning All-Valley Conference selection. Though he lacks the size of predecessors Quinton McCown (New Mexico) and Devin Combs (Nevada), Gordon (6-foot, 185) makes up for it with accurate passing and nonstop energy.
The former East Union High star completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,771 yards, 23 touchdowns, eight interceptions and rushed for five touchdowns. Those numbers were compiled while three featured running backs went down to injuries.
"The quarterback is the key," Young said. "We feel TeeJay is more experienced, stronger and faster. He is the trigger man."
Sophomore Marcus Hernandez, a straight-ahead threat whose freshman season was cut short by a shoulder injury in Week 8, still compiled 644 yards and 12 touchdowns. He'll complement Fuentes (three rushing TDs, three receiving TDs) in the slot.
Freshmen Anthony Cota and James Sams promise even more production in the backfield. They promise a net upgrade in MJC's running back corps.
Less certain are the wide receivers, staples in MJC's attack. The Pirates have spotlighted special talent in recent years in Brian Alvarez, Ronyea Ellington, Vince Andrews, David Gianesin and Marcus Allen.
The scrappy Alvarez set three school records during the last two seasons. Replacing him is a must to continue the offense's acceleration. Offensive coordinator Rusty Stivers envisions help, however, from tight end Jake McCreath (6-4, 250).
Up front, a slightly smaller offensive line will be led by returners Brandon Jurevich and Joe Vargas. Ivan Delgado emerges as a redshirt freshman, and freshman left tackle Jaidyn Sheetz out of Oakdale will protect Gordon's blindside.
Defensive coordinator Drew Brown didn't like what he saw last year. The Pirates allowed a school-record 424 points (42.4 points per game), stats that swelled to 47.4 points in the VC.
Solutions are expected via multiple schemes and better depth in the secondary.
"The key for us is to get the best 11 on the field," Young said. "I think we'll be better this year."
Safety Stephen Thayer, a sprinter on the track team, returns after missing 2012. He could rotate between safety and corner, while Herbert Whitehurst a running back last year mans the other corner. Also figuring into the mix in the secondary are D.C. Gardeley, Marced Kelly and Smoky Moore.
Adrian Cortes and Chad Hale return at linebacker, a position to be bolstered by Jeremiah Walters, a McClymonds High grad who saw action in eight games last year for Idaho. Jaime Lemus and Miguel Marshall, both Pirates in 2011, bounce back this fall.
The defensive line will be led by sophomores Tyler Juncker (19.5 tackles, five tackles for losses), Dominic Barba and Adam Bennett. Watch for freshman Nester Garcia (6-2, 290).
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2302. Follow Ron via Twitter, @modbeesports.
Saturdayat Merced, 6 p.m.
Sept. 14Hartnell, 6 p.m.
Sept. 21Laney, 6 p.m.
Sept. 28at San Mateo, 1 p.m.
Oct. 5Butte, 6 p.m.
Oct. 19at Sequoias, 1 p.m.
Oct. 26at Sierra, 1 p.m.
Nov. 2American River, 6 p.m.
Nov. 9at Fresno, 1 p.m.
Nov. 16Delta, 1 p.m.
MJC FOOTBALL PREVIEW