Expectations. Three years ago, head coach Tim Pierleoni gathered a bunch of bright-eyed freshmen and sophomores for a meeting at Brownell Middle School and laid out an extensive list of goals. The Christopher High football team’s 2011 league championship season – in year three – may have taken everyone on the opposite sideline by surprise. But among the CHS players and coaching staff, it was exactly what was envisioned when the program opened in 2009.
“From Day 1, we talked about winning the league when those sophomores were seniors,” Pierleoni said following Tuesday’s practice.
CHS graduated its first group of seniors in May. Twenty-two of those suited up for the Cougars and had a role in paving the way for this 2012 season, which begins tonight as Sobrato High School rolls into Gilroy. A brand-new batch of eager players have seen what it takes to be successful and now have their turn at creating a championship.
And expectations this time around? They are still there, even as the Cougars make the jump to ‘A’ league status in the Gabilan Division of the Monterey Bay League.
“We are still a young, building program, but our expectations are not going to change at all,” Pierleoni said. “Our expectations are to try and win every game, to be league champions, CCS champions and state champions. And we are going to work our tails off to get to that point. And that’ll never change no matter what we have.”
Friday night’s prime-time stage will paint a clearer picture of what exactly Pierleoni has in this 2012 team.
“This year it’s kind of exciting. You think you are going to fall off, but there is a lot of talent out there,” Pierleoni said. “We are going to be younger this year, but you can just see how the school and the program is developing.
“This summer, I think we did more improving over that span than we ever did,” Pierleoni said. “These kids, brand new to me, we really struggled at first. But by the end of the summer, everyone was so much better.”
There have been plenty of program firsts over the past three years. When junior quarterback Sterling Montgomery lines up behind center tonight, he too will be included on that list. However, his first is also technically a second.
Montgomery, who Pierleoni tabbed as starter roughly one week into fall practice, will be the first varsity signal caller to start for the Cougars not named Brandon Pickens.
“Of course you think about that, but you just have to trust in the coaching and all the hard work put in to prepare for the opportunity,” Montgomery said. “I worked really hard in the offseason to get where I am today. I did that just to get better for my team. I was going to work as hard as I can, whether I was going to start or not, I showed up every day so that I could improve for the team.”
Pickens started nearly every game since his sophomore season (CHS had just junior varsity and freshman teams) in 2009. He compiled a 13-9 varsity record. Those reins are now there for Montgomery to take hold of.
“It’s never easy to be the guy after the guy,” Pierleoni said. “I think Sterling has improved tremendously. He has worked with the team and on his own extremely hard. He really wants to be a good quarterback. He wants it bad. And he put in the work to do that.”
Though unknowns tend to precede season openers, what is certain is that the Cougars will ride an experienced offensive line, which returns three starters – center Nate Silva (5-foot-11, 235 pounds), guard Tyler DeCarlo (6-4, 270) and tackle Tomas Zamora (6-1, 215), plus two others – James Cinnamond (6-1, 280) and Mark Riffle (6-3, 255), who saw valuable playing time in 2011.
“We have all been working hard,” said DeCarlo, who earned second-team all-league last year. “We want to go and prove we are just as good as last year’s seniors.”
And to that, Zamora added that the continuity between the five has been developing at a useful rate, which has garnered a line of trust between them and their new quarterback.
“We have to work hard for him and give him the time,” he said.
Montgomery (5-10, 160) is just one of a number of offensive players stepping in and up for the Cougars this season. Gone, too, is 2011 Monterey Bay League Most Valuable Player, receiver Marcus Harrell, leading rusher Nic Slater and multi-faceted Bryant Cid.
The regeneration begins with junior running back Rayshon Mills (5-11, 185), a varsity contributor since his freshman year, was on the fast track to all-league honors last season before off-the-field issues abruptly ended his year. Coaches have seen a shift in focus in their go-to guy, who they feel will have a break-out 2012.
“Rayshon is a very, very good football player,” Pierleoni said. “We are going to put some eggs in that basket, no doubt about that. We are going to give the ball to the guy who we think will get it done.”
Freshman running back Zach Almash (5-6, 180) has been a welcome edition and will be a reliable second option out of the backfield.
“He is going to help us. He hasn’t shown any worry. He is pretty polished,” Pierleoni said.
Wide receivers Josh Salgado and Brian Delgado, plus tight end Takoda Bowers (6-4, 210), who will double as defensive end, and newcomer Tyler Phurong will all rotate in that corps.
“We don’t have the big play ability that we had last year, I don’t think,” Pierleoni said. “But we have a bunch of kids who can catch the ball. So we will see.”
Huge holes at linebacker left behind by all-leaguers Patrick Mank, Mikey Pirnick and Slater, will be filled by sophomore Jacob Moen (6-4, 220), who stormed onto the varsity scene as a freshman midway through last year, senior Isaiah Campos and junior Andrie Arroyo. Mills is slotted as the team’s rover. That foursome, along with senior defensive end Cody Law (6-1, 205), Bowers, DeCarlo and Riffle will carry the defensive unit, which was one of the league’s stingiest in 2011.
“We would like to be known for our defense here,” Pierleoni said. “For us to win in the league we are in, we have to be very good on defense.”
• The Cougars nonleague slate involves home games against Sobrato (tonight) and Live Oak, and away tilts against Pacific Grove and Leland.
• Tonight’s opener against Sobrato starts at 7:30 p.m. at Garcia-Elder Sports Complex. The contest marks the third consecutive season in which the Cougars and Bulldogs have kicked off the year versus one another. Christopher has yet to defeat Sobrato on the field. Sobrato spoiled CHS’s first-ever varsity game, 28-10, in 2010. Last season, the Bulldogs beat the Cougars 40-26 – a decision that Sobrato later had to forfeit because an ineligible player suited up for the game.
• CHS opens Gabilan Division action at home versus Alvarez on Sept. 28. Road games include Palma and San Benito.
Tonight vs. Sobrato, 7:30
9/07 vs. Live Oak, 7:30
9/14 @ Pacific Grove, 7:30
9/21 @ Leland, 7
*9/28 vs. Everett Alvarez, 7:30
*10/05 @ Palma, 7:30
*10/12 vs. Salinas, 7:30
*10/26 @ San Benito, 7:30
*11/02 vs. Monterey, 7:30
*11/09 @ Gilroy, 7:30
Conference Game = *