The way things played out at the end of this past season, the Paso Robles High football team had plenty of memories to pull from when searching for the strength to get through the dog days of summer practice.
There was the regular season finale against North County rival Atascadero, where the Bearcats scored a touchdown in the final minute of regulation to tie the score, only to lose in the second extra period on a Greyhounds two-point conversion.
A weeks later, back at home for the opening round of the Northern Division playoffs, Paso Robles played eventual champion Hart to a 35-35 draw through three quarters before allowing 21 unanswered points in the fourth.
“It makes you cringe,” junior tight end Jonathan Baldwin said. “That was a huge motivation going forward.”
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The silver lining for the Bearcats is that 16 of the starters who felt those heartbreaks are back for another shot at league and playoff glory.
“Obviously, we’re motivated from that,” said senior receiver Bailey Gaither, an all-county first teamer who caught 57 passes for more than 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns. “For a lot of these guys, too, it’s their senior year of high school, so just knowing it’s the last year to go out and play with your buddies has us wanting to go out and work hard.”
It was Gaither who caught the game-tying touchdown with 43 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter against Atascadero. The 6-foot, 170 pounder who has clocked a 4.49 in the 40-yard dash had a busy offseason, winning the baseball County Player of the Year award and gathering a total of seven offers from Division I schools across the country.
“His speed helps others, and he knows it’s a team game,” 15-year coach Rich Schimke said. “Last year, we had a big game in league where he was kind of a sacrifice, but his sacrifice opened up others and helped us win the game. He still ended up with decent numbers — seven catches, 90 yards and a touchdown.
“From a defensive standpoint, don’t put all your eggs in his basket, because there are others that are very, very good, too.”
Gaither isn’t even the only Division I prospect the Bearcats have in the receiving corps, with 6-5 Josh Oliver verbally committing to San Jose State.
Oliver only had 17 catches last season, but will line up at tight end as well as receiver to take advantage of his rare combination of size and athleticism.
“It helps a lot having a lot of returners on offense,” said Oliver, who will also play defensive end and linebacker.
“Now we’re not necessarily just trying to memorize plays, we’re more into the defensive schemes, knowing what they’re going to run and how we can go against it.”
Baldwin is another big target at tight end, and slot receiver Ty Jones has a year of experience under his belt.
The line returns guard Luis Alvarado and left tackle Jordan Burbank, who joined Gaither and Oliver on the Cal-Hi Sports all-region first team.
“It’s great to have all those weapons and we have a lot of kids to go to,” Burbank said. “Hopefully we can utilize those weapons and take advantage of them.”
Most of the aforementioned players will play both sides of the ball, joining returners such as defensive end Michael Horne and safety Parker Gray on defense.
All-league punter Bryce Pasky will handle the kicking for the second straight year after making 6 of 9 field goals with a long of 47 yards as a junior.
There will be new names in the backfield, with last year’s leading rusher, Nathaniel Harris, graduated and leading passer Gunnar Griffin at Templeton.
Sophomore Christian Erickson will get the start at running back, and at 5-10, 205 pounds, he’s a guy Burbank described as “a good power runner.”
“He fights for those tough yards that we need,” Burbank added.
Justin Davis takes over for Griffin, but the junior doesn’t enter the season inexperienced. When Griffin went down with an injury in 2013, Davis filled in admirably.
In the five games he played in, Davis completed 76 percent of his passes (23 of 30) for 338 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. However, Davis injured his ACL and missed the rest of the season.
“We didn’t baby him, but at the same, we didn’t put too much pressure on that leg in the offseason,” Schimke said.
“The game is slowing down in his mind. It’s not like a brand-new guy coming in, and he’s coming into his own. He’s a quiet leader that the guys just respect, and they know that they’re going to get everything that he’s got.”