Something was off for the Paso Robles High football team in its season opener this year.
Elias Stokes, the Bearcats’ most dynamic offensive weapon, had rushed for 83 yards and a touchdown on three carries but didn’t have a catch by the end of the 54-25 loss at Fresno Central.
The day after the game, Bearcats coach Rich Schimke realized he had to get the ball into Stokes’ hands more.
“You’ve got to go to go-to guys in go-to moments,” Schimke said. “I learned that lesson that first game, and I vowed that that wasn’t going to happen again. And it didn’t.”
Stokes, a 5-foot-10, 160-pound junior receiver and kick returner, finished with 61 catches for 1,001 yards and 17 touchdowns, 35 carries for 246 yards and seven TDs, and 22 kickoff returns for 708 yards (a 32.2-yard average) and four TDs.
After consistently producing at such a high level — whether against out-of-area powerhouses such as Centennial of Bakersfield, in-county rivals such as Atascadero and Arroyo Grande, or playoff foes such as Inglewood — Stokes has been named The Tribune’s San Luis Obispo County Player of the Year.
Paso Robles had the most difficult schedule of any Central Coast team this year. The Bearcats finished 10-3 overall, going undefeated in the PAC 7 for their first outright league championship since 2005, and advanced to the CIF-Southern Section Western Division semifinals, the furthest the program had gone since 2001.
Stokes’ overall touchdown total of 28 ranked third in the state among players who primarily play receiver, according to MaxPreps.com.
Stokes, already named the PAC 7 MVP, certainly wasn’t the only county player who enjoyed a season that was elite on a statewide scale during what has to be regarded as the strongest across-the-board year for local prep football in nearly a decade.
Also receiving considerable support from coaches for player-of-the-year honors were Morro Bay’s Sam Crizer and Templeton’s Tyler Gray, each all-county first-team selections in their own right.
Crizer, a co-MVP of the Los Padres League, rushed for 1,951 yards, the most in the state at the 11-man level by a quarterback, while Gray, the county’s highest-profile college recruit, rushed for 1,628 yards and was also a standout at linebacker while leading the Eagles to a Northwest Division semifinals appearance.
‘He could’ve played wherever’
After starring for the Bearcats’ JV team as a freshman, Stokes was brought up to the varsity squad for the 2008 playoffs.
“I got to see what the pace of varsity was like,” Stokes said. “That really helped me.”
In 2009, he caught 31 passes for 501 yards and three scores, with the yardage total ranking 20th statewide among sophomores.
“I knew he was a pretty special kid,” Schimke said. “You’ve got an athlete like that that has a feel for the game, that has — I know it’s a cliché — but a high football I.Q., picks things up super-fast, multi-talented.
“We tried to get him the ball as much as we could in different spots on the field. He just made some tremendous plays.”
Two examples of the trust placed by Paso Robles’ staff in Stokes this year came in signature wins over Arroyo Grande, an eventual Western Division finalist (by a score of 14-10 on Oct. 29), and Atascadero (34-7 on Nov. 12).
Stokes took direct snaps for significant amounts of time in each game, rushing a combined 21 times for 113 yards and four TDs, in addition to catching 12 passes for 132 yards and two more scores.
“It was a challenge. Since it was my second year at wide receiver, I pretty much have a basis there,” Stokes said. “Getting moved around was just an experience. It was really fun just changing perspective of the game.”
If Paso Robles didn’t have as much roster depth as it did, Schimke said, Stokes would’ve made a terrific defensive back, as well.
“He would be a great cover corner or a safety, because the kid can hit,” Schimke said. “He has no fear of sticking his shoulder pads in there. He could’ve played wherever.”
Stokes, who has also been a varsity baseball player since his freshman year, hasn’t nailed down specific college plans yet.
One of the state’s other receivers who scored more touchdowns than Stokes this year, Folsom senior Tyler Trosin, is committed to Oregon State.
“He could play at the next level,” Schimke said of Stokes. “I’ve done it a long time, and we’ve got kids; this whole area has kids that can play, and whether or not somebody far-removed is going to believe that’s the case or not remains to be seen.”
Part of a special group
Several other key pieces to the Bearcats’ run also brought a good deal of experience from 2009 into this season and went on to fulfill prominent roles.
Among them were quarterback Jacob Searcy, running back Jesse Felgenhauer, receiver Aleksander Koch, center Cole Thompson, offensive tackle Jose Jimenez, defensive tackle Bo Bonnheim and safety Scott Plescia, each all-county and all-league selections, as well.
“We accomplished a lot,” Stokes said. “We reached our potential. Everyone just made that jump. We said, ‘We’re not going to settle for anything less than a win.’
“We kept each other on our toes in practice, we battled back and forth, we made it fun.”
They kept it that way even after that early-September night in Fresno, and also after a similar take-your-lumps 62-28 loss to Centennial in another nonleague game.
“I’m especially proud of the kids,” Schimke said, “because they could’ve folded the tent early.
“When you lose like that, a typical person says, ‘Yeah, right, coach.’ These guys believed. They believed in what we were doing and believed in the big picture.”