High school football season kicks off Friday across San Luis Obispo County, and there was another competitive shuffling of the teams this year resulting in some notable changes.
Last year’s two-league format — which contained six teams apiece following the switch from CIF’s Southern Section to the Central Section for SLO County schools — is kaput after just one year.
Instead, there will be three leagues, each containing four teams: Mountain League (Arroyo Grande, Paso Robles, Righetti, St. Joseph); PAC 4 (Nipomo, Atascadero, San Luis Obispo, Pioneer Valley); and Ocean League (Mission Prep, Morro Bay, Santa Maria, Templeton).
All leagues will remain in the Central Section.
Picking up where we left off last fall, there are some notable story lines to track as the season progresses. Can SLO High and Mission Prep continue their resurgences after breakout seasons last year? It was 2016 when Arroyo Grande last won a league title, its third straight at the time; can the Eagles return to their Central Coast dominance?
Can a new coach, with a name that is very familiar to longtime county football fans, turn things around in Morro Bay following the tumultuous departure of former head coach David Kelly?
Here’s a closer look at five teams to watch in 2019:
San Luis Obispo
Last year’s record: 8-4, 3-2 Ocean League
The Tigers went to the semifinals of the Division III playoffs last season, ultimately falling to powerhouse San Joaquin Memorial. It was the first season in which San Luis Obispo had won a playoff game since 2011 and marked a decided resurgence in the program overall. Emilio Corona will return for his final season behind center and will have plenty of experienced skill players to work with.
Two players with over 100 carries will be back in Anthony Arroyo and Jeremy Fitzsimmons. Wideouts Max Soltero and Sam Ogden had almost 1,000 yards receiving and eight touchdowns between them.
Another thing that San Luis Obispo returns this year is size. Junior tight end and defensive lineman Thomas Cole could take a big step forward in his development. At 6-foot-7, Cole has the physical attributes to be a force on either end. Carson Leedom, also 6-foot-7, is another big target for Corona. The Tigers have more big bodies in offensive linemen Christian Jones, Andres Candelas and Quinn Williams.
The big boys up front will have a capable coach in former Fresno State and New York Giant tight end Bear Pascoe, who was quietly added to the coaching staff.
Last year’s record: 8-4, 2-2 Mountain League
The Eagles are the lone county team in Division I after Paso Robles dropped to Division II this year. Construction delays to Doug Hitchen Stadium mean that Arroyo Grande won’t have home game until Oct. 11. The best chance to see the Eagles before then will be Friday, when they are set to face rival San Luis Obispo.
Big and physical, Arroyo Grande doesn’t try to disguise what it’s trying to do as they try to knock off defending Mountain League champion St. Joseph. The Eagles completed just 56 passes last year on their way to amassing almost 3,300 yards rushing. The four players from the offensive line that paved the way for that yardage will return, including center and captain Diego Huitron.
Ethan Royal will line up behind Huitron after spending last season on junior varsity. Caleb Tomasin will get a chance to be the feature back after the departure of James Gilmet. Tomasin averaged 7.5 yards per carry on 100 carries last season with five scores.
Last season’s leading tackler Elijah Castro returns to lead the linebacker corps. Castro had 142 total tackles and two interceptions last year. The secondary returns Sebastian Angulo, who had a team-leading five interceptions and Mason Thompson, who had three.
Last year’s record: 11-0, 6-0 Central Sierra League
The Royals return to 11-man football the year after winning the first title in school history in the 8-man Central Section championship. They should be challenged early in their schedule after a dominant 2018.
Key contributors are back, including quarterback Mark Rodriguez and wideouts Assani Berkeley and Carlton Brown.
They will also have talented running back Brian Kowall, who rushed for over 2,000 yards last season.
However, several defensive stalwarts will be missing with the departure of Brayden Farr, Chase Jones and Mace Sherlock. Figure on last season’s leading tackler Dalton Strouss to be an impact player on defense.
It will be interesting to see how the Royals balance their offensive firepower with question marks on the other side of the ball.
Last year’s record: 8-3, 5-0 Ocean League
Nipomo was disappointingly bounced out of the Division II playoffs in the first round on a last-second touchdown by Bakersfield’s Frontier. The Titans will look to rebound behind third-year starter Brayden Groshart.
The quarterback will also anchor the defensive line for his senior season.
Junior Keyshawn Pu’a should figure to get the bulk of carries after a season in which he had 434 yards and seven scores. His duties will include lining up on defense as middle linebacker. Jesse Garza, the second-leading tackler last season, will join Pu’a at linebacker.
With the bulk of its impact players playing both sides of the ball, Nipomo needs to stay healthy to have continued success in 2019.
1-9, 0-5 Ocean League
Last season was one to forget in many ways for the Pirates. Head coach David Kelley was fired mid-season following insensitive comments made to a junior varsity player. The team was swept in league games.
Morro Bay has a fresh start in Jake Goosen-Brown, who took the head job after spending 13 seasons coaching at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks.
He comes from a family with lengthy connections to the county and one which boasts one of the most successful coaches in its history, Tom Goosen. The former longtime Arroyo Grande coach is Goosen-Brown’s uncle.
Even though Morro Bay will face another up-hill battle this season against the likes of Mission Prep, Templeton and Santa Maria, a re-imagined offense and coaching staff should be interesting to watch.
Week 1 schedule, SLO and northern Santa Barbara county teams
All games at 7 p.m. unless otherwise noted
Arroyo Grande at SLO High
Woodlake at Mission Prep, 7:15 p.m.
Liberty at Paso Robles
Atascadero at Sunnyside, 7:30 p.m.
Nipomo at Santa Ynez
Rio Hondo Prep at Morro Bay
Templeton at Caruthers, 7:30 p.m.
Pioneer Valley at Oxnard
Righetti at Santa Maria
Central Valley Christian at St. Joseph