Last year had a different feel for the Atascadero High football program.
For the first time since 2005, the Greyhounds were unable to call themselves PAC 7 champions.
“We had a little downfall last year, and we didn’t really play as well as we could’ve,” senior tight end Weston Walker said. “The past couple years we’d been winning league championships, and last year it was just weird not to win it.”
Not coincidentally, last year also marked the first time since 2005 they had lost to archrival Paso Robles, 14-13 in the regular-season finale.
“It’s motivating,” senior defensive end and linebacker Spencer Ruggles said of those memories. “(Whether) we’re in the locker room or just off the field hanging out, that’s what we talk about. It’s all we do. We want to take (the PAC 7 title) back.”
Additionally, after the loss to the Bearcats, the Greyhounds (7-4, 3-2) were unable to win a divisional playoff game for the first time since 2006.
“I know the kids talk about it a lot,” seventh-year coach Vic Cooper said. “There are some things still lingering with losing to Paso last year and the way we exited the playoffs. That among many other things has got them pretty hungry.”
Atascadero will be led by a defense that is star-studded, not only by Ruggles but also senior cornerback Troy Norris. Both earned all-San Luis Obispo County and all-PAC 7 first-team honors in 2009.
The 6-foot-1, 211-pound Ruggles made 36 tackles and had a league-best 7.5 sacks as a junior, while the 5-11, 155-pound Norris led the league with five interceptions returned for 116 yards. Norris, who also made 51 tackles and broke up nine passes, stood out as a kick returner as well, taking back 13 kicks for a 31.2-yard average and one touchdown. Fellow cornerback Zac Haskell, who made 49 stops as a junior, joins Norris as a returning starter in the secondary.
Up front, Atascadero is hoping for contributions from two-way lineman Dimitri Cullors, a 5-11, 324-pound senior. At linebacker, Eli Jackson, Davis Cracknell, Gannon Robinett, Brandon Simonini and Adam Woodhull will try to make up for the losses of Evan Hicks, an all-county first-team selection in 2009, and Steven Keezer, now playing at Cal Lutheran.
Jackson, who had been a strong safety, could help fill the role vacated by Hicks, who made the same transition to weakside linebacker a year ago.
In 2009, the Greyhounds posted four second-half shutouts, including one in arguably their most impressive overall showing, a 37-14 win over Arroyo Grande.
“Last year, the week we played really well against A.G., we had a great week of practice,” Walker said. “If we can just keep up that kind of practice this whole year, we’ll have big things in our future, hopefully.”
On offense, the Greyhounds are experienced in the backfield, as 6-3, 190-pound senior quarterback Jesse Whitten went 70-of-129 passing for 1,022 yards and four touchdowns with seven interceptions in 2009. He also had 162 rushing yards and four scores on 46 carries.
Atascadero also welcomes back running back Tanner Thompson, who ran for 606 yards and eight TDs on 90 attempts as a junior. Stetson Bullard and Deonte Barnes should also see plenty of carries.
The offense could also receive a boost from Walker, a 6-4, 228-pound target. At the start of last season, Walker volunteered to fill in along the offensive line rather than stick to being a tight end when he noticed the group might’ve been a man short, Cooper said. This year, Walker could pay dividends as more of a downfield receiving threat.
“He’s gotten stronger, and he’s pretty athletic for as big as he is,” Cooper said of Walker, who led the Greyhounds’ basketball team with 5.9 rebounds per game last year as a power forward.
Four starters graduated from last year’s offensive line, including Dalton Spinas, who earned all-CIF Southern Section Northern Division acclaim and is now playing at Occidental College.
“We’re young,” Cooper said of the offensive line, “but the nice thing is we have some talent there. So it’s not like we’re bone-dry and trying to manufacture things.
“We’re not searching for (possible starters). We’re just trying to figure out which ones are going to go where.”
Atascadero opens its season at Salinas at 7:30 Thursday night and starts PAC 7 play at Arroyo Grande on Oct. 1.