Christopher High junior quarterback Jaxen Robinson will make his return under center for the Cougars football team in the upcoming 2023 season, which kicked off Aug. 24 against North Monterey County High. (Thien-An Truong/special to Gilroy Dispatch)

The time has finally arrived for both Christopher and Gilroy high schools to kick off the 2023 football season.

The Cougars finished in a three-way tie for the Blossom Valley Athletic League Mt. Hamilton Division crown and advanced to the Central Coast Section Division II playoffs in 2022.

Meanwhile, the Mustangs will attempt to bounce back in hopes of a postseason run for the first time since winning the CCS D-V championship in 2017. 

Here is a breakdown of each team for the upcoming season. 

Christopher Cougars

Head coach: Darren Yafai (3rd season)

League: Blossom Valley Athletic League Mt. Hamilton Division 

Last season’s record: 9-2, 4-1 (Mt. Hamilton Division tri-champion)

Playoffs: CCS Division II quarterfinalist  

In 2022, six of the nine wins were by 20 or more points and a 51-9 rout of Piedmont Hills garnered Cougars head coach Darren Yafai the “49ers PREP Charlie Wedemeyer Memorial Coach of the Week” award. 

A majority of the players on that team are making a return this year.

“We are excited about the upcoming season,” Yafai said.

Junior quarterback Jaxen Robinson, at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, was 5-0 as a starter before being sidelined with an injury. Three offensive linemen return, with All-BVAL guard Zeke Begines fronting the troops. All-BVAL linebacker/tailback Will Rizqallah was the backup tailback last year and will be the starter.

Rizqallah will also be a force either at linebacker or defensive end for a Cougars defensive unit that may grab the highlights. They allowed 10 points or less in eight of 10 regular season contests.

Senior cornerback Amari Bluford, who last season earned All-BVAL honors, leads the defensive secondary; while Evan Vernon, an all-leaguer as a sophomore, will fortify the stop unit at strong safety.

Christopher shared the league title with Live Oak and Lincoln, which both lost a lot of personnel due to graduation. But figure on the Acorns being the biggest threat to the Cougars, who will host the teams’ Mt. Hamilton showdown in the regular season finale on Nov. 3 at 7:15pm.

2023 football schedule

Aug. 24: at North Monterey County, 7pm

Sept. 1: at Piedmont Hills, 7pm

Sept. 8: San Mateo, 7pm

Sept. 15: Overfelt, 7:15pm

Sept. 21: at Gilroy (Rivalry Game), 7:15pm

Oct. 6: at Oak Grove*, 7:15pm

Oct. 13: Santa Teresa*, 7:15pm

Oct. 19: at Lincoln*, 7:15pm

Oct. 27: at Leland*, 7:15pm

Nov. 3: Live Oak* (Senior Night), 7:15pm

*Blossom Valley Athletic League Mt. Hamilton Division game

Gilroy Mustangs

(From left to right) Gilroy High’s Jaime Gonzalez, Tyler Hodges, Talan Warren and Nathaniel Neander will help lead the Mustangs football team in the upcoming 2023 season. (Jonathan Natividad – Gilroy Dispatch)

Head coach: Dillon Babb (1st season)

League: Blossom Valley Athletic League Santa Teresa – Foothill Division 

Last season’s record: 4-6, 1-3 (5th in Santa Teresa – Foothill Division)

Playoffs: Did not qualify

Dillon Babb, a Gilroy native and Christopher High graduate of 2012, takes the reins of the Mustangs. In his first season, Babb is emphasizing speed, speed and speed to take advantage of Gilroy’s top weapons.

“We might not be the biggest team on the field, but we are going to let our speed create the mismatches,” he said. “We have all the right pieces to be a good team, but it will come down to the heart and effort we give week in and week out.”

Key offensive components are returnees Talan Warren at quarterback, captain Tyler Hodges at running back and Nathaniel Neander at wide receiver. Wide receiver Jaime Gonzalez, who moved up from the JV squad, had a promising spring and summer. Gilroy struggled down the stretch last season after a 3-1 start, as the attack totaled just 34 points in the final six contests.

“4-6 [overall record] was not a good taste in our mouths,” Babb said. “All we want to do is improve in every category.”

Last season, the defensive unit kept seven of its 10 opponents to 20 points or less and Babb said he is emphasizing getting all 11 players to the ball. 

Gilroy’s first-year head coach feels swarming to the ball will lead to chaos and that will create turnovers. Hodges will be a force at linebacker, while reinforcements from the JV team including Jacob Reynaga will be at outside linebacker and Gonzalez at cornerback.

Line play will be a key to the speed offense. Two promising newcomers in the interior are sophomores Evan Passama and Jimmy Friebel.

“The Gilroy Mustangs will be very competitive in the BVAL this year,” said Babb, who cited Pioneer and Branham as the likely favorites. “I think every team will be good and we will have to play our best every time we compete.”

2023 football schedule

Aug. 24: at Live Oak, 7:15pm

Sept. 2: at Carmel, 2pm

Sept. 8: North Salinas (Staff Appreciation), 7:30pm

Sept. 21: Christopher (Rivalry Game), 7:15pm

Sept. 30: at Ann Sobrato, 2:30pm

Oct. 6: Branham* (Mustang Madness), 7:15pm

Oct. 13: at Independence*, 7:15pm

Oct. 19: at Silver Creek*, 7:15pm

Oct. 27: Pioneer* (Homecoming), 7:15pm

Nov. 2: Piedmont Hills* (Senior Night), 7:15pm

*Blossom Valley Athletic League Santa Teresa – Foothill Division game

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