Brian VanderBeek

Gustine in full gear

GUSTINE — Gustine High football has started the season 2-0.

Repeat that sentence three times slowly, just so the words sink in.

This was a football program that had gone 0-19 since winning its 2006 opener, had been shut out six times while getting outscored 773-116 during that time, and was so low in numbers late in the 2006 season it forfeited a league game; a program on the verge of complete collapse after a 2006 hazing incident at a summer football camp.

On the other hand, this was a school that only six short years ago took an undefeated record into a Sac-Joaquin Section title game, which it hosted in front of a crowd larger than the city's population.

"I remember that the whole town shut down that night and they had to bring in more bleachers," said senior running back and linebacker Jake Fillipini. "It was the most exciting thing that probably ever has happened in Gustine, and I just want that pride to come back to Gustine like they had back then. It's only two games, but the people are starting to come out and back us again."

The Redskins opened with home victories against Riverbank (38-12) and Denair (35-7), which means they've already scored more points this season than in either of the previous two. But tonight Gustine travels to Mariposa — easily the best team and most unfriendly venue so far on the Redskins' schedule.

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"We felt we could compete from the start, and this will be a true test for us," said first-year head coach Manuel Bettencourt. "We're really stepping up this week. I know what it's like to go up there and play."

As does assistant coach Jonathan Gerhart. Bettencourt is a 1995 Gustine High graduate, while Gerhart, a 2003 grad, was a team captain of that 2002 team.

"Jonathan grew up watching me play and these kids grew up watching Jonathan play. He instantly brought credibility to this program," said Bettencourt, who has been a head baseball coach and football assistant at the school.

Gerhart also brought a new work ethic to Redskins football, taking over the summer training program.

"I've been with these kids since May," said Gerhart, who played at Merced College and is finishing his degree at CSU Stanislaus. "The improvement they showed between May and August was unbelievable — not just their strength but also their range of motion. Based on those changes, we knew we were going to come out and surprise a few teams."

The complete turnover in the coaching staff this season guaranteed a fresh start for the kids, even those who chose not to play last season. Senior running back Felix Figueroa leads the Redskins with 384 yards rushing and seven touchdowns through two games after not playing as a junior.

But he was in the stands last season, watching his friends go through an 0-10 season.

"It made me want to be a part of the team because I knew I could help the team," Figueroa said. "I regret not playing last year and I wasn't going to let this season pass by. That (the hazing) entered my mind a little bit. I don't think that stuff kept as many players away as some people think it did. We've put all of that behind us, and doing that has allowed us to move forward as a team, a community and a school."

It's one thing to watch your friends suffer and want to help. It's another to have suffered through a winless season as a player and retain the desire to play football.

"It was tough last year," Fillipini said. "I took a pretty good beating. You work hard in practice all week, working hard every day knowing that when you take the field on Friday night you're going to get beat. It was hard to come out to practice and put everything into it. Being 2-0 is huge. It took me 10 varsity losses to get my first two wins."

The fast start to the season, indeed, has allowed the football program to move past the last two years. But while the kids are resilient, it has taken the town a little longer to forgive, forget and come back to the stadium.

"What we need to remember about the hazing thing was that it was due to a lack of supervision," Bettencourt said. "Right away I addressed that by being visible and being around all the time. The hazing happened years ago. It's over with and gone and it was nice to see people in the stands Friday night."

Gerhart said he took the program's downfall as hard as anyone not directly involved. As a senior, he poured himself into helping Gustine go 12-0 under coach Jeremy Plaa and claim a Southern League divisional title before losing to Central Catholic in the Division V final.

Now, he's thrilled to be part of the healing and rebuilding.

"It was heart-wrenching to see all that stuff happen," Gerhart said. "I hate drama, especially all the off-the-field stuff. When Coach Plaa was here, our motto was 'No distraction, just destruction,' and we lived my that. We've tried to ingrain with our guys that we don't need the extra stuff on the side, we just need to come out and play, and enjoy it, and they've bought into it."

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