Different players. Different venue. Different year.
That’s the mindset coursing through the San Luis Obispo County football team’s week of practice leading up to today’s fourth annual Fellowship of Christian Athletes All-Star Classic in Paso Robles.
The team of northern Santa Barbara County All-Stars won the first three by an average of 20 points. But on the strength of an accomplished running back corps, which includes 3,000-yard rusher Patrick Laird of Mission Prep, SLO County is hoping to ground and pound its way into the win column.
“They are there for a reason. They’ve earned the right,” SLO County and Paso Robles High head coach Rich Schimke said. “They want to have fun, but at the same time, for a lot of these guys, this is the last time they are going to put on pads.”
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In addition to Laird’s 3,117 rushing yards, three other participants on the SLO County roster eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark this season en route to Tribune All-County first-team selections.
Izaiah Cooks racked up 2,206 all-purpose yards — 1,514 rushing — in helping Atascadero capture a PAC 7 title. Cooks scored 18 rushing touchdowns and had three receiving scores. Morro Bay’s Tristan Collins ran for 1,700 yards and 14 scores, and Paso Robles’ Nathaniel Harris finished with 1,502 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns.
“The running backs are definitely solid,” Schimke said. “There are some quality athletes there.”
Arroyo Grande’s Mikey Gutierrez and San Luis Obispo’s Thomas Orradre have been splitting reps at quarterback, Schimke said, although a mix of graduation ceremonies and other end-of-the-year banquets have taken a toll on the number of practice participants.
“It’s been pretty sparse in attendance, and that’s not the kids’ fault,” he said. “We’re a little thin in some areas, but … I think we’re coming together.”
Arroyo Grande’s Sean St. Denis, Mission Prep’s Evan Talbert and Morro Bay’s Zach Smith headline the crop of wide receivers, and Paso Robles’ Dorien Banks, Atascadero’s Alan Hurst and Arroyo Grande’s Christian Cockrell anchor the offensive line.
“For some of the kids, it was Greek ...” Schimke said of the playbook, “but we’re starting to all be able to read Greek.”
Schimke said the majority of the county’s coaches have been at practice every day helping formulate a game plan and coach the all-stars.
“Normally, you’re trying to beat those staffs but, heck, we’re in it for the same thing,” he said. “We’re in it for the kids.”
On defense, Arroyo Grande’s Bryson Downs and San Luis Obispo’s Brandon Cutler combined for 11 sacks from their defensive line positions. Linebackers Ryan Lombardi of Atascadero and Grant Alton of Arroyo Grande both surpassed the 100-tackle mark in the regular season.
SLO County will be without Mission Prep’s Calvin Levisay and his six interceptions in the defensive backfield, as the future Cal Poly walk-on is out with an injury. Arroyo Grande’s Michael Jordano and Paso Robles’ Taylor Holden lead the unit of defensive backs looking to shut down the Santa Barbara passing game spearheaded by quarterbacks Curry Parham (St. Joseph) and Gage Buckley (Lompoc).
The All-Star game rules limit defenses to running only a base 4-3 formation, Schimke said, but coverage schemes in the secondary can vary.
Santa Barbara has history on its side, including last year’s 36-10 victory, but the southern team will be without star defensive tackle Ainuu Taua. The UCLA-bound wrecking ball was named an All-Star, but he is already committed to two other showcase games — the limit for high school seniors.
The game is set to begin at 7 p.m. today at Paso Robles’ War Memorial Stadium and will honor longtime coaches Jon Huss (Arroyo Grande) and Barney Eames (Santa Maria and Allan Hancock College).
“It’s going to be a packed house,” Schimke said. “We’re looking forward to representing San Luis Obispo County and, win or lose, we’re going to walk out with our heads held high.”