Every sports team needs players who lead by example. Christopher High football stalwarts Payton Wheeler and Rossi Oteri are splitting reps in practice at one of the offensive tackle positions, a byproduct of the Cougars graduating their entire offensive line.
“Payton and Rossi are the heart and soul of our team,” said Darren Yafai, who is in his first season as the CHS coach in a career that started at Gilroy and then as an assistant on the Cougars’ junior varsity team. “Those two guys lead the way for us. We’re going to need to rely on them for everything.”
Oteri and Wheeler also play fullback and linebacker, so they’ll literally be all over the field making plays. The linebacking core is strong, which also includes returning starter Kingsley Okoronkwo and Mason Pena, who plays the rover position, a hybrid strong safety and outside linebacker position.
Pena is also a returning receiver. In addition to the aforementioned players, CHS has a wealth of talent returning at the skill positions. Spencer Gorgulho, who split reps at quarterback last season, looked sharp in the team’s scrimmage with Santa Cruz and Soquel on Aug. 20. The Cougars open the season against Sobrato on Saturday.
“One of our strengths is having a veteran QB like Spencer,” Yafai said. “(In the scrimmage) we were able to protect him well, which helped our passing game do well.”
Returning cornerbacks/receivers Jaterius Lee and Nick Pham made several impact plays last season on both sides of the ball, and this season should be no different. Safeties Mikey Cambria, Jermaine Thomas and Devin McWilliams all will see time at receiver as well.
McWilliams ran a couple of nice sweeps and had a couple of catches in the scrimmages. Damiann Gomez plays multiple positions, while Eric Argumnedo, Wheeler and Rossi will be key in rushing the ball. Even though CHS lost most of its starters from both lines, Wheeler and Yafai are confident the new cast will develop into a solid unit.
Luis Ramos and Vincenzo Mesa go both ways playing offensive tackle and defensive end. Junior Jacob Ahumada looks to be a fixture at center, and Osvaldo Jimenez is projected to play on the offensive line. Aldo Najar, who received some playing time last season, is one of the most experienced linemen.
“We’re getting better with our line play,” Yafai said. “Our defensive linemen are not big, but they’re physical, athletic and quick. So we’re going to have to make up for a lack of traditional line size with execution, toughness, quickness, game planning, all those things. It’s all those things to help neutralize the other teams’ superior offensive and defensive line size.”
Although the team went through a notable coaching change in the off-season from Tim Pierleoni to Yafai, Wheeler said Yafai made the transition smoother by bringing in assistant coach Bobby Bluford.
“He has not only brought the team to a whole new level, but he’s taught us a lot about being good young men,” Wheeler said.
Oteri and Wheeler are good friends, having played the same linebacker position since they were freshmen. Even though the offensive line is not their primary position, they’re stepping up and doing whatever the team needs to be successful.
“I see it as a challenge taking on bigger defensive linemen, but I put in a lot of work in the weight room in the off-season,” Wheeler said. “I know I’m a little undersized to be a lineman, but I feel I can play the position adequately. It’s a big change overall, but me and Rossi are doing whatever is best for the team.”
Said Yafai: “They’re very unselfish guys and I’m proud of them.”