In high school football, continuity and experience are worth their weight in gold. If you believe that, then Arroyo Grande High is the Fort Knox of San Luis Obispo County.
The Eagles will bank on a handful of returning players who played key roles on a 2014 team that went 10-2 before a season-ending loss at home to PAC 5 rival Paso Robles in the CIF-Southern Section Northern Division semifinals.
Quarterback Sawyer May, running back Alex Cecchi, and two-way standouts Bradley Mickey and Joey DeLaRosa, all key contributors on last year’s co-PAC 5 championship team, are back in 2015.
“The more kids you have coming back, the easier the transition,” said seventh-year head coach Tom Goossen.
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The team has already drawn high praise, ranking No. 1 in the Southern Section Division Northern rankings, No. 14 in the Southern Section and No. 19 in the state by MaxPreps.
It’s all in the Paso
If the Eagles are to make a deeper run than last season, it will need to get over the hump against the Bearcats. The Eagles were 0-2 against the Paso in 2014, including the season-ending loss.
“We played exceptionally well, and Paso played better,” Goossen said of the 28-21 loss. “Their big gun made the big play at the end of the game in both games we played them.”
The big gun Goossen is referring to is Bailey Gaither, The Tribune County Player of the Year who has moved on to play for San Jose State. Gaither torched the Eagles twice, returning a controversial lateral for a touchdown before scoring a two-point conversion in a one-point Arroyo Grande loss in October, then scoring on a 62-yard screen pass in the final minute of Paso Robles’ thrilling semifinal win a month later.
The Eagles had a balanced offensive attack in 2014. The throwing end of that balance had a lot to do with the accurate arm of May. Playing in all 13 games, the 6-foot sophomore threw for 2,134 yards and 20 touchdowns against just three interceptions, completing 63 percent of his passes.
“His targeting is exceptional,” Goossen said of the junior. “We’ve had a lot of quarterbacks come through here, some of them better than others, but he’ll be one of the top ones when he exits.”
May said he spent the offseason working on trying to become more consistent throwing outside of the pocket and improving footwork and arm strength.
They’re Back, Running
May doesn’t have to carry the offensive load himself because he will have help from possibly the deepest position for Arroyo Grande: running back.
“We have a ton,” said May of the Eagles’ running stable. Cecchi and DeLaRosa, the top two rushers from last year’s team and Arroyo Grande’s version of thunder and lightning, are back as seniors.
Cecchi, who plays the lightning role at 5-8, 165 and can also be inserted as a slot receiver, led the ground game with 11 touchdowns and 693 yards. DeLaRosa, who had 100 carries last season (22 less than Cecchi), had a 6.7 yards-per-carry average and chipped in seven touchdowns of his own while playing the role of thunder as a 5-foot-11, 220-pound fullback. (Story continues after videos)
“We’re a pretty tight senior class, we’re all friends, we’re all homies,” DeLaRosa said. “Just to have a lot of returners ... it’s good on the experience part. We’re good with all the hype. We know what’s going to happen.”
Mickey and junior Matthew Sill have also been getting plenty of reps and figure to get some action in an offense that saw five running backs with more than 20 carries last season.
In front of the backs will be an offensive line led by senior first team All-County player Josh Day.
Opposing quarterbacks will definitely think twice before putting the ball in the air against the ball-hawking defensive backs.
The Eagles' defense intercepted 24 passes and the two players who combined for 17 of those picks, first team All County defensive standouts Mickey and Benny Willkomm, will be back at it again.
Goossen has set the bar high for Mickey, who led the Eagles with 10 interceptions as a free safety.
“Without a doubt Bradley Mickey is going to be a lynchpin for how this team performs,” Goossen said. “... As a sophomore he was outstanding, as a junior he was even better, and he’s going to need to progress in order for us to reach our full potential.”
Mickey, who missed a tackle as Gaither got loose for the season-ending touchdown, hasn’t forgotten about the loss to Paso Robles either.
“It was a tough loss,” Mickey said of the Paso Robles game, adding the Eagles need to learn from the mistakes they made in the final quarter. “We need to focus more, wrap up, tackle, just (improve) our mental focus.”
Along with those PAC 5- leading 10 interceptions, Mickey also had seven touchdowns, five as a wide receiver and two as a rusher.
DeLaRosa likes what he sees out of the rest of the defense that also returns Sam Ness, who led the team in tackles as a sophomore.
“Our whole defense is spot on,” said DeLaRosa, who will see time at outside linebacker along with his fullback duties.
What kind of team Arroyo Grande will be will be found out early as it opens up at home against Lompoc on Friday. The Braves have defeated Arroyo Grande the past four seasons in Week 1 and handed the Eagles its only other loss last season before Arroyo Grande finally broke through against the Braves with a 28-3 win in the second round of the playoffs.
Lompoc is led by last season’s Los Padres League MVP in dual threat quarterback Torey Sims and sophomore linebacker/running back Toa Taua, who was good enough as a 14-year-old to be mentioned in the Los Angeles Times as possibly one of the best freshman in the nation.
Despite the high ranking and a tough opening game, many think that Arroyo Grande has enough to run the table, but Goossen doesn’t like to talk about that.
“We don’t talk about expectations here, we just talk about getting better a day at a time,” Goossen said.
“We’re just looking to redeem ourselves,” said May of the semifinal loss. “We can’t wait to get back on the field.” “Obviously it didn’t go our way, but I think it kind of fed our fire. I think we really want to get back to that spot again and hopefully it will go differently.”