Carlos De Leon recalled the anxiety he felt last fall as American River marched toward the potential winning points.
De Leon, the Modesto Junior College center, had done enough. The Pirates led 43-42 in a wild game that produced nearly 1,200 yards and 11 turnovers. And here were the Beavers, unbeaten and ranked No. 3 in California at the time, intent on breaking MJC’s collective hearts.
“It was scary,” De Leon remembered. “I was thinking, ‘Please hold on.’ ”
His wish was granted. American River gained a first down at the MJC 29-yard line but, having used all its timeouts, was helpless against the ticking clock. The Pirates and fans celebrated a win that turned around their season.
Why is this scene relevant this week, you ask? Two reasons: 1. De Leon is one of 10 returning starters, and 2. MJC opens the season Saturday night at American River against some sophomores who no doubt haven’t forgotten what happened to them last October.
The Beavers dropped three of their last four while Modesto won three of its last four, including a 48-39 victory over Santa Rosa in the Golden Valley Bowl. It was MJC’s first bowl win away from home in 33 years.
“I know the sophomores on both teams will remember,” MJC coach Sam Young said in reference to last year’s chaos against ARC. “I’m sure our returners understand the quality of the Beaver program.”
The demanding opener underlines a daunting fact for the Pirates: They embark against their most difficult schedule in years.
Chabot and Laney will join Modesto and the rest in the realigned Valley Conference while American River and Sierra switch to the NorCal League. American River stays on the Pirates’ schedule as a non-league game. Other MJC non-league games include a nasty home opener against College of San Mateo (Sept. 13), Diablo Valley, Sacramento and powerful City College of San Francisco.
“How is it possible to play the toughest schedule in Northern California last year, and this year it’s tougher?” Young said.
The biennial realignment also is enhanced by a NorCal first: The winner of a four-team postseason bracket will determine the NorCal champion. The winners of the Valley, NorCal and Big 6 leagues will join a fourth at-large team in the bracket.
But that’s a football lifetime away. MJC’s immediate concern is to replace an offense that averaged 43.9 points and 537 yards per game. The latter number was tops in Northern California and No. 3 in the state.
“Our coaches say at every practice, ‘100 plays a game,’ ” said De Leon, who started 10 of MJC’s 11 games last year. “We emphasize a lot of reps and plays. We’re used to the tempo. You get tired but it’s fun and very rewarding.”
Gone from that high-velocity spread offense is scrappy two-year starting quarterback TeeJay Gordon, MJC’s all-time leader with 5,539 passing yards and 444 completions. His successor will be Spencer Thomas, who edged Joseph LeGerrette-Luke – the son of veteran MJC defensive line coach Joe Luke Jr. – in a tight competition.
Thomas, who guided Oakdale to a state finals appearance in 2012, earned the job with a strong showing during last week’s Blue and White scrimmage. Young said LeGerrette-Luke will see action, however, against American River.
Much of MJC’s success will depend on sophomore tailback Anthony Cota, who finished strong last fall en route to 1,142 yards and 10 touchdowns. Cota has gained about 20 pounds, up to 227, and hasn’t lost his 4.51-second speed in the 40.
Other returning starters on offense are De Leon, guard Jaime Barajas, tackle Jaidyn Sheetz, slot Chris Souza and receiver Zach Moreno. An intriguing newcomer is receiver Ronnie Holley, a star from the track team last spring. He’ll bring speed to complement the versatile Souza and Moreno. Jordan Levu, a Patterson product, will succeed Jake McCreath (Oregon) at one of the receiver spots.
Meanwhile, the MJC defense seeks improvement after allowing 38 points a game in 2013. Those numbers are deceiving, however, given the no-huddle velocity of offense these days. The Pirates have been flying to the line of scrimmage non-stop since midway through the 2010 season, and they’re not alone.
“The games are longer now. Scoring has gone up. The days of 21-14 are long gone,” Young said. “The way we go on offense gives us the best chance to win. But now the defensive stats are skewed.”
The MJC defense will be anchored by four returners: inside linebackers Brandon Camara and Erik Hernandez, nose guard Nester Garcia and safety Markell Perkins. A few older additions are end Anthony Salazar, who served in the Air Force, and outside linebacker and former Idaho Vandal Jeremiah Walters.
Chris Lein will handle punting duties and Thomas Langley will kick extra points and field goals. The kickoff man is Brendan Cremin.
The dependable Souza will return punts while Holley and Embry Allen Jr. return kicks.
“The chemistry on this team appears to be tight,” said Young, MJC’s winningest coach. “Every team is a separate entity. We’ll see how this team reacts to the game. It will be a super challenge to meet a high quality team in the first game on the road. But it’s not something we can’t overcome.”