Learning on the fly was the way for the Paso Robles High football team in 2009.
A year ago at this time, the Bearcats were phasing in 11 new starters on defense, not to mention first-time starters at running back and both receiver spots.
By the end of the season, a new quarterback had also entered the mix.
And to make matters even more of a trial by fire, Paso Robles’ three nonleague losses came against teams that went on to finish a combined 35-3.
After a 1-2 start to PAC 7 play, though, Paso Robles (5-5, 3-2) rallied to close the year with two straight wins, including a 14-13 victory over Atascadero in a dramatic regular-season finale — its first victory over the Greyhounds since 2005.
Nonetheless, finishing in a three-way tie for second place in the PAC 7, Paso Robles was the league’s first team to be left out of the divisional playoffs based on a random-chance preseason number-draw tiebreaker.
Now, 17 starters are back from that team, including an area-best seven all-league selections.
“They went through some growing pains last year,” 12th-year Bearcats coach Rich Schimke said. “But they finished the year strong, and they’re coming back hungry. We’re definitely looking for those returners to lead us.”
Five of the seven returning all-league players are on defense: 6-foot-3, 250-pound nose tackle Bo Bonnheim, linebackers David Katz and Hunter Gay, end Harley Holt and safety Scott Plescia.
“I think we’re way further ahead at this point than we were last year,” Plescia said, “and we also can help the young guys so everyone knows what they’re doing and everyone gets to the right spots.”
Plescia, Katz, Bonnheim and Gay were each in the top five on the team in tackles a year ago.
“As a unit, we’re one year older and one year faster,” said Plescia, who had team highs of 82 tackles and three interceptions as a junior. “Nothing can replace that experience (gained from last season).”
On offense, senior quarterback Jacob Searcy saw significant time toward the end of last season when third-year starter Thomas Bernal succumbed to injury.
Searcy’s finest hour came in the Atascadero game, when he went 11-of-18 passing for 186 yards and a touchdown, with no turnovers.
“He did well,” Schimke said of the 6-1, 175-pound Searcy’s late-season showings. “He’s a winner.”
At receiver, the Bearcats bring back an all-league first-team pick in Elias Stokes, a junior whose 501 yards on 31 catches ranked 24th in the state among sophomores in 2009; and Aleksander Koch, a 6-4 senior who cleared his height in the high jump during track and field season, advancing to the CIF-Southern Section Masters Meet.
“I have a lot of talent around me,” Searcy said. “We have a lot of experience on both sides of the ball.”Jesse Felgenhauer, a versatile senior, is expected to start at running back.
“He knows the rigors that lie ahead,” Schimke said of Felgenhauer, a younger brother of former all-county Bearcats running back J.R. Felgenhauer. “He’s prepared himself for (a starting role).”
Paso Robles graduated the PAC 7 Running Back of the Year Robbie Burbank, a 6-1, 210-pound bruiser now at Reedley College, who earned all-Northern Division honors after rushing for 1,802 yards and 21 touchdowns on 254 carries.
Just the same, though, the Bearcats plan on emphasizing a physical running style, Schimke said.
To that end, three starters return along an offensive line averaging 6-2, 245 pounds, in center Cole Thompson (who was named to the all-PAC 7 second team as a junior), tackle Jose Jimenez and guard Travis Martinus.
Paso Robles opens the season at 7 on Friday night at Central of Fresno, ranked No. 23 in CalPreps.com’s preseason statewide ratings.The Bearcats will begin PAC 7 play by hosting San Luis Obispo on Oct. 1.