With coaching changes at half of its six schools and the loss of arguably the best player in Kern County to injury, the area’s “Power League” may need a few weeks to reach full capacity this season.
The transition has created more than its share of question marks among Southwest Yosemite League teams, and with that, uncertainty.
How will Bakersfield High adapt to a new system under first-year coach Michael Stewart, a former Driller star who went on to play several years in the NFL? Can former BHS coach Paul Golla take Garces to the next level? Will Centennial return to prominence with coach Richard Starrett at the helm? What will Stockdale look like without star quarterback Evan Burkhart, who tore his ACL in a non-contact clinic in June?
“Well, obviously being new to town, my expectations are just to feel out, not only my team, but let them get a feel for what we’re trying to do as far as a coaching staff,” said Starrett, who replaces Chad Brown after coaching the past eight years in Waco and Katy, Texas. “And being from so far away, I don’t know anybody in town, I haven’t seen anybody, I’ve seen some film, but as far as expectations for league, that’s so far in the future for me, it’s so hard for me to even predict anything with that.”
Perhaps the one certainty will be at Liberty High, where the Patriots have been the model of consistency under coach Bryan Nixon. In his six seasons, his teams have gone undefeated four times in league play and are 28-2 in the SWYL in that time period.
“We continue to try to continue the culture that we’ve built,” said Nixon, whose team has won 10 straight league games. “And we have a great group of young men. We continue to focus on the little things every day. And that’s what we talk about constantly, is focusing on the little things and worrying about what we can control.”
The Patriots, who finished 12-2 last season and lost in the Central Section Division-I finals to Fresno-Central, lost plenty from last year. That includes two-way star Sam Stewart Jr., who accounted for more than 2,200 yards and 23 touchdowns last season and two-year starting quarterback Hector Gonzalez.
But the cupboard is not bare. Senior Ramon Henderson, a 6-foot-3, 180-pound wide receiver and defensive back, has an offer from Oklahoma and leads a talented group of returning players.
Henderson had 32 catches for 580 yards and nine touchdowns, returned kickoffs for another 638 yards, and had an interception, a fumble recovery and 25 solo tackles as a defensive back last year.
“Offensively, I think overall team speed may be a little improved, “ Nixon said. “But I really think the biggest strength is the work ethic of our players. They continue to strive to get better daily, which is fun to be around. We enjoy practice daily.
“They strive to be physical. And they continue to do the little things. I know I keep harping on that, but we feel that’s very important. So our kids have bought into that and they continue to bust their tail and be physical every day.”
Despite the loss of its coach to its league rival, Bakersfield High appears to have the talent to push the Patriots this season.
In 14 years at BHS, Golla led the Drillers to five Central Section D-I championships and the state title in 2013. Now the school’s winning legacy turns to Stewart.
“It’s been great,” said Stewart, who went on to play at Bakersfield College and Fresno State before embarking on a 10-year NFL career as a defensive back with the Rams and Dolphins. “Every experience is a learning experience, so I’ve been so close to a lot of head coaching roles, but it’s always different being in the driver’s seat, just learning how to use our time wisely. Making sure everyone’s on the same page. Just building it out, establishing what your goals are, and then allowing those things to start to settle in and build the foundation for a program going forward for a long time.”
The Drillers’ talent starts with Isaac Jernagin, who verbally committed to Nevada. The 5-10, 170-pound senior made an impact on both sides of the ball last season. He had 521 yards and seven touchdowns rushing, averaging more than 15 yards per carry, and added another 125 yards and two scores as a receiver. As a defensive back, he had 24 solo tackles, an interception and a forced fumble.
Jernagin is joined by Wesley Wilson to form perhaps the most dynamic duo in the area. Wilson rushed for a team-high 1,171 yards and 18 touchdowns last season.
“I feel like right now, we have some good depth at a number of positions,” Stewart said. “We have a good group of seniors that are coming back, so you hope that all those things equate to some advantage as we get going in the season. We’re excited about what we have and what the young men have been doing. And so we’re looking forward to getting going.”
Golla is also excited about his first season at Garces — and for good reason. With the return of senior Joseph Campbell at quarterback for his third year at the controls, a big offensive line and some nice complementary pieces, such as 6-4 senior receiver Jack Hatten, the Rams appear primed for a solid season.
“I think a strength is our offensive line,” Golla said. “They’re big, physical dudes. They have a great work ethic, the whole team strength overall is how close they are. They’re a close group of guys. And they’re fun. They know when to practice hard and when to have fun and when it’s work time.
“Right now, we feel good where we’re at. But the next phase is going to be how do we play in a game. Do we continue to do the little things right in that environment, or do we kind of go ‘uh oh,’ and kind of revert back and do something different? But I think every football coach in the country is wondering the same thing right now.”
Those questions are at the forefront at Centennial, Frontier and Stockdale.
“We just don’t know where we’re at until you see somebody new,” Stockdale coach Brett Shelton said. “We have a dedicated group and we want to be physical, but you don’t know how physical you’re going to be until you play another team.
“We have to develop both sides of our line. We only have two returners that started with us last year coming back, so we have some juniors and one senior that are still developing and trying to mesh. You just never know how they’re going to be when faced with adversity. It will be their first varsity football snaps.”
Shelton will be forced to rely on several new faces — and some old, that have been thrust into more of a leadership role with the injury to Burkhart, who combined to run and throw for more than 1,800 yards and 20 TDs last season, in leading the Mustangs to the Division II semifinals.
“Missing out on Burkhart, one just as a player, he’s the best player in Bakersfield, but the second thing is what he brought to practice every day,” Shelton said. “He changes the tempo of practice with his play. He’s not the most vocal guy, just his presence and the tempo that he brought elevated practices.”
Players such as senior Jeremiah Gradowitz, Burkhart’s favorite target at wide receiver last year with 36 catches for 487 yards and six scores, have stepped up to help fill that role, Shelton said.
“Our kids understand that sometimes things like this happen and it’s a next-man-up mentality,” Shelton said. “After that initial shock of that day when we found out Evan was out for the season, there’s no use complaining about it, you can’t control it. Unfortunately, one person’s adversity is another man’s opportunity. And they have to seize the opportunity. You can’t feel sorry for yourself; you have to learn to adapt.”
At Centennial, the Golden Hawks have also been forced to adjust, but Starrett is happy with their progress heading into the season.
“Our No. 1 strength right now is we have intelligent kids who are bought in,” Starrett said. “I think that’s a big factor. Football has turned into a pretty big chess game out there, especially how some offenses are run, you have to be smart. You have to be able to adjust and be able to identify what’s going on from the other side of the field. With the intelligence we have on our football team, it shines through with our work ethic. I have a really good group right now that’s willing to work hard and do things the right way, and I think that usually pays off.”
At Frontier, third-year head coach Chris Bandy was hit hard with graduation and is going to have to rely on several young, untested players.
“I think we’re going to be young, but we’re hungry,” said Bandy of the Titans, who were 3-9 and 0-5 in the SWYL, but reached the D-II quarterfinals last year. “The guys are pretty focused and seem to be all in on the preparation. So that’s good. We graduated quite a few kids, and we have a good sophomore class, so we’ll have five or six sophomores that start for us this year.
“We return most of our starting offensive line. So that’s good. I think our D-line and our linebackers are going to be a strength for us. We lost some defensive backs so finding those guys that can step in and play for us will be key.”
The Titans, like the rest of the league, will have six weeks to figure it out. SWYL play starts Oct. 4.
“It’s just buying into the process of the three phases of the game.” Nixon said. “We break the season down into phases. The first phase is the preseason, second phase is our league and our third phase is playoffs. Not that we don’t want to play well in Phase 1, but we want to be able to learn and get the experience and do the things we can to play well in Phase 2 and 3 and be playing our best in the end.”