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SEYL FOOTBALL PREVIEW: Highland looks to break through

Just months away from celebrating its golden anniversary, Highland High School has suddenly become the gold standard for boys athletics in the Southeast Yosemite League.

Last year the Scots won SEYL boys team titles in baseball, cross country, golf, swimming, tennis and track & field.

In May, the Scots baseball team captured its second Central Section Division III championship in three years.

The Scots' highly successful 2018-19 school year punctuated the best four-year span for boys sports in school history.

Despite not being on the list of teams that won league titles last year, Highland’s football squad has performed extremely well in recent years.

The Scots current prosperity comes on the heels of a long dry spell.

Highland averaged just 3.2 wins per season on the gridiron during the 13 years leading up to the hiring of Michael Gutierrez as head coach in 2014.

However, since the innovative and energetic Gutierrez took over the program the Scots have posted a 30-26 overall record including an impressive 21-12 mark during the past three seasons.

Two years ago Gutierrez helped Highland earn a three-way tie with North and South for the SEYL championship. It was and remains the only league title ever won by the Scots in football.

This year Highland hopes to win the SEYL outright and hopefully duplicate the baseball team’s playoff success.

The path to winning the SEYL won’t be easy.

The most formidable foes standing in the Scots' way are defending league co-champs East and North plus always tough South, which has posted an 18-3 record in league games while winning one shared and three outright league championships since moving to the SEYL in 2014.

One thing that favors Highland over the other contenders is experience. The Scots return four out of five starting offensive linemen plus many of their top skill position players including junior quarterback AJ Cleveland and senior QB/RB/WR/OLB Nick Salas.

Last season Cleveland passed for 881 yards and nine touchdowns, while Salas passed for 924 yards and 12 TDs, rushed for 330 yards and nine scores, and caught 12 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns.

“We have enough experience at multiple spots where we’re not putting in a bunch of faces and hoping that it transitions into something,” Gutierrez said. “We really like the group that’s coming back.”

Gutierrez also really likes the cohesiveness of his team.

“During the offseason they really just bonded together,” Gutierrez said. “This group really seems to get along probably than any other group that we’ve had at Highland.”

Scots senior two-way starter (guard/nose guard) Matt Ortiz, whose twin brother Lucas is Highland’s starting center, agrees with that assessment by Gutierrez.

“We are creating a brotherhood,” Ortiz said. “Because of that we should be very successful this year.”

Salas, a starter on both of Highland section winning baseball teams, will once again give the Scots football team a dangerous multidimensional offensive threat that will be key to the team's chances of winning the SEYL.

The three-year starter was a First Team All-SEYL selection last year.

“All we want to do every year is make our school proud,” Salas said. “The football team is coming up. We’re very proud to say that.”

North is proud to say that it was a co-league champ last year.

The Stars will have their work cut out for them if they want to repeat, however.

They graduated two huge offensive weapons in quarterback Shannon Ferguson (1,070 yards and seven touchdowns passing on just 89 attempts) and running back Chris Romero (1,597 yards and 24 rushing TDs).

Both were Second Team BVarsity All-Area selections last season.

North coach Norm Brown acknowledges that the departures of Ferguson and Romero hurt, but he likes the talent and potential on his current roster.

“We only lost two lineman and we have a lot of speed,” Brown said. “…We feel excited. I don’t know if we have as much talent as the last two years but we’re just a different type of team. Definitely faster than we’ve ever had here the last five years.”

The Stars will have to be fast if they want to keep up with South, which almost always features a roster full of gamebreakers.

This year that will once again be the case according to Rebels coach Cary Mills.

“I know we’re young, but we have a lot of talent,” Mills said. “We’re fast and we have a little more size than we have had in the past…I’m really excited about this year’s team because of the potential they have and our practices have gone really, really well.”

Mills’ biggest concern is his team’s lack of depth.

He hopes his team can avoid a lot of injuries and challenge for the SEYL championship.

“We always feel that we fit in at the top,” Mills said. “…We feel that we’re going to be competing for the league title with the usual suspects. Highland and North still have some quality kids in their programs.”

Brown, who’s led North to a 16-9 overall record during the past two years, thinks the SEYL will be a battle this year but that his team will be ready for it.

“Our goal is to win the SEYL outright,” Brown said. “That’s the No. 1 goal we have in our program. We’ve been co-champs the last two years…We feel confident about where we’re headed, but the SEYL is tough.”

Gutierrez’s approach with Highland is less concrete when it comes to setting specific goals like winning a league title. It’s a subject that he never discusses with his team.

“The one thing that we’re teaching our guys is to just get better every day and make sure we’re ready to compete for a full game,” Gutierrez said. “I think if we do that, we hope that means we have success throughout the regular season.”

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