Even though the Christopher High football team finished 7-6 last season, there is no doubt it represented the greatest season in the program’s history.
The Cougars went 4-4 in the ultra-tough Pacific Coast League Gabilan Division, doubling their previous best single-season win total in the A division. Then they knocked off traditional tough programs Palo Alto and Leland in the Central Coast Section playoffs to reach the Division III championship contest, where they fell to Sacred Heart Cathedral.
Cougars coach Darren Yafai will be the first to say the team graduated an incredible senior class, but the return of several key players along with a full off-season of strength and conditioning has Yafai optimistic the team can produce another memorable season.
Jaterius Lee, a 6-foot-3 receiver/cornerback who was a tour de force last year as a deep threat and shutdown corner, is poised to have another big season. Lee had 10-plus receptions covering 60 yards or more last year, a testament to his big-play ability.
And yet, Yafai said Lee has added other elements to his game that should prove decisive.
“Jaterius looks excellent,” Yafai said. “I think he’s improved in every part of the game. He’s bigger, faster, his confidence is off the charts. He’s done an excellent job this summer assuming a leadership role. He’s a fun guy, an exciting guy and a big personality, and our guys really follow him. It’s scary what he can do once he gets the ball, but other parts of his game have flourished as well. He’s going to be able to catch a lot of passes on underneath routes which will open things up for our offense even more.”
The CHS coaching staff made the running game a point of emphasis in the off-season, as Yafai noted how inconsistent the ground game was in 2021. That was through no fault of the running backs or the undersized offensive line, which was in tough against bigger defensive fronts such as Salinas, Palma, Hollister and Aptos.
With returning 6-4, 290-pound center Jacob Ahumada leading the way, the offensive line has a little more beef this season. Ahumada played in all 13 games last season and incredibly enough, didn’t miss a snap.
“He executed every snap well, and in a shotgun offense that is rare,” Yafai said. “Jacob is very athletic, very smart, and incredibly dependable. He’s the anchor and leader of the offensive line.
This year our offensive line is younger but bigger. We took the whole offseason to re-establish a consistent run game. We weren’t poor at running the ball; we were inconsistent. So the combination of being a little bigger up front and having a whole off-season of strength training is what we’re hoping will make a difference.”
Eric Argumedo, a returning starter at tailback and linebacker, will figure heavily into the team’s run game along with junior Will Rizqallah, who was called up to the varsity team with a month left in the regular season and came up clutch, intercepting two passes in the second half to propel CHS to a thrilling one-point win over Palo Alto.
Rizqallah will play linebacker this season rather than the secondary after packing on some muscle in the off-season. Another standout junior, Amari Bluford, shined last year at cornerback with two key interceptions against Leland in the CCS semifinals.
“Amari is now a year bigger, stronger and faster,” Yafai said. “He had an amazing summer and we’re going to utilize him in the fly sweep or getting him out in space. We always knew he had the offensive skills, and this summer he was able to showcase that. He’s the whole package.”
The Cougars return Damiann Gomez, who was the backup quarterback in 2021 but saw significant playing time. Through Aug. 12, the senior was sharing snaps with sophomore Jaxen Robinson. Yafai describes Gomez as a multi-threat quarterback and Robinson as the traditional pocket passer.
“Both QBs had great summers,” Yafai said. “They were comfortable, they were accurate and they improved. They bring in different talents and that makes us better as a team.”
Gomez is also an impact cornerback and can be used at receiver as well. Kingsley Okoronkwo, a 6-2, 190-pound senior linebacker, made an impact on both sides of the ball a year ago. Yafai said the team will further utilize Okoronkwo at tight end, receiver and running back.
Brian Garcia returns as one of the team’s best two-way linemen, and Devin McWilliams figures to have a breakout season after showing flashes of playmaking ability last year.
“As a coaching staff, we’ve got to find a way to feed him more balls,” Yafai said. “Devin is fast, has great hands and last year was perhaps a bit underutilized.”
CHS has switched from the Pacific Coast League to the Blossom Valley League’s Mount Hamilton Division this season. While not as top heavy, the race for the league title should be a doozy, with CHS, Live Oak and Santa Teresa the preseason favorites.
Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected]