Talk about a tough act to follow.
In 2009, the Nipomo High football team set a single-season school record for wins, won a playoff game for the first time in the eight-year history of its varsity program, and also hosted the school’s first home playoff game.
The Titans also had an area-best three players accept Division I scholarships in cornerback Kevin Britt (to Cal Poly), linebacker Duane Hanna (Sacramento State) and receiver Akeem King (San Jose State) — not to mention a walk-on at that level in do-everything running back Eric Penningroth (Cal Poly).
“We try as much as possible not to talk about guys that are now gone,” Nipomo coach Russ Edwards said. “So we don’t try to compare our guys and say, ‘Eric Penningroth would’ve done it this way,’ or ‘Kevin Britt would’ve been here on this route.’“Ultimately, as a program, what we’d like to get to is, same number, different face — but everybody’s doing their job.”
Altogether, 17 starters graduated from last year’s group that finished 8-4 (5-2 in the Los Padres League), reaching the quarterfinals of the CIF-Southern Section Northwest Division playoffs, where they fell to Serra, the eventual Division III state bowl champion.
In fact, Nipomo was the last Southern Section team from San Luis Obispo County still playing — no small achievement for a program with humble 3-26 beginnings during its infancy from 2003 to 2005.
“The next group, this group of seniors, doesn’t want to be the group that goes backwards,” Edwards said.
Among returning players who saw extensive playing time in 2009 are running back Devonte Jackson, free safety Joe Gutshall and defensive linemen Chris Reed and Jerardo Torres.
“We have big shoes to fill this year, and I think we’re ready to do that,” Jackson said. “We’ll miss those guys (who graduated), but we’re still going to do us, and give it 110 percent every play, and just play our game.”
As a junior, the 5-foot-11, 215-pound Jackson served primarily as an H-back, rushing for 234 yards on 39 carries while catching 13 passes for 114 yards and a touchdown. He also went 6-of-12 passing for 91 yards with a pair of scores.
Jackson, who said he’s looking forward to getting more carries, spent much of last year in a somewhat unsung role helping to free up Penningroth, a shiftier runner who was named The Tribune’s County Player of the Year after compiling a county-best 2,008 yards from scrimmage.
“He’s going to bring a different dynamic,” Edwards said of Jackson’s strength.
Justin Springer, a junior, is also expected to see carries.
In place of all-county first-team quarterback Josh Correia, a deep-ball specialist now at Hartnell College, the Titans plan on starting Chris Souza, a 6-foot, 175-pound junior. Souza, who has stood out as a hurdler in track and field, figures to be more of a mobile dual-threat.
Chas Evert, a 6-3, 170-pound senior, has emerged as a starting receiver candidate, along with Micah DeBruno. The Titans’ passing game will have to adjust to losing a great deal of speed on the outside, Edwards said, as Britt (an all-Northwest Division selection) and King both clocked roughly 4.5-second 40-yard dash times.
Defensively, Edwards plans on relying on a stout line anchored by Reed, a 6-3, 265-pound senior who earned all-LPL second-team honors after making 58 tackles a year ago. Torres added 42 stops in the same unit.
Gutshall, who had 82 tackles and an interception as a junior, will guide the secondary, which has welcomed Juan Rodriguez, a senior transfer from Righetti likely to start at cornerback.
“Now it’s our time to shine and help our program do well as years go on,” Reed said. “We’ve got to set the example (to younger players).”
Midway through training camp, the Titans’ staff was still trying to configure a linebacker corps that was hit hard by graduations, most notably that of Hanna, an all-Northwest Division honoree who was named the LPL Defensive Back of the Year after making 134 tackles.
Edwards is, however, encouraged by the 8-2 mark his junior varsity program produced a year ago.
“We’re just going to continue to keep trying to move the program upward,” Edwards said. “Year-in and year-out, you have spectacular players leave the program, but the next guy in line steps in and does the job.”
The Titans open the season at nonleague rival Arroyo Grande at 7 p.m. Sept. 10, and start their LPL slate Oct. 1 at home against Santa Maria.