Gavilan College football coach John Lango affectionately refers to community college athletics as second chance U, a play off of the wildly popular Netflix series Last Chance U. At the community college level, student-athletes earn second and sometimes third or fourth chances in pursuit of their dream to play at the four-year level and beyond and prepare themselves academically for a future career off the field.
Gavilan has its fair share of players who are in their second stint with the program, including sophomore safety Matt Wittanen, who played for the Rams in 2017 before going on an odyssey that included stops at Idaho and De Anza College before finally landing back at Gavilan.
“Some times I feel like calling him the prodigal son, because he’s been at Gavilan so many different times,” Lango said. “It’s been interesting, but we always welcome him back with open arms.”
Wiitanen isn’t the only impact player who is back in their second stint with Gavilan. Sophomore linebacker Anthony Navarro also played for the Rams in 2017 before sitting out last season. Even after a 0-10 season in 2018, Lango knew better days were ahead. Armed with a full recruiting cycle, the Rams have added numbers and talent, giving them optimism entering this season.
“Last year I don’t think we ran any 11 on 11 until we went against Foothill (a week before the season started in a scrimmage),” he said. “We were almost 15 practices in before we could do what a normal team could do (practice-wise). But this year we have a great mixture of experience and new guys. The experienced guys know what to expect, and for us it’s getting the new guys to understand the work ethic, how to practice and the whole thing in what it takes to be successful. It’s been good.”
Expect several Rams to make an impact this season, starting with defensive tackle Richard Justo, who Lango expects to be downright dominant at times. Justo will command plenty of double teams, which should free other players on defense to make plays.
“He’s just a load to handle,” Lango said. “He’s going to cause a lot of trouble for some people.”
Bobby Reese, Alec Calderon and Nathan Aguayo are three of the key players in a strong secondary, while Kyree Harbin and Deven Day should make a lot of plays at linebacker. Ivan Dominguez and Josh Takahara, who redshirted last year while at Azusa Pacific, have looked strong on the defensive line, while Carlos Lopez and Zach Maxey are returning players on defense who have also looked solid.
John Bell and Raul Garnica have battled for the starting quarterback role, and the Rams will be in good hands whoever is under center. Both players are solid, with Bell being the starter last year and Garnica back in his second go-around with Gavilan after redshirting at MPC last year. The Rams have plenty of depth at running back, with Rich Denton and Harbin getting the most reps at the top of the depth chart. Sophomore Javier Molano and freshman Stephen Reyes have also looked strong in practice.
“None of those guys are big, but they’ve got good feet and get behind that O line well,” Lango said. “With our scheme, they’ve been real good with it.”
The offensive line packs plenty of potential, with Devin Pacheco, Ethan Rogers and Ben Calderon leading the way. Corbin Muckel, a halfback/tight end/defensive end, and the wide receiving core is one of the most experienced units on the team, with Desmond Hatten, Devin Diaz and Arnold Martinez possessing playmaking ability.
Wiitanen listed a dozen or so players who will have a tremendous impact, including Calderon and Aguayo, who are fast, physical and create contact to throw offensive players off-balance.
“They make my job real easy because they’re buying time for me to get down so I can run the read, stay inside or get over the top,” he said.
At 6-foot and 185 pounds, Wiitanen plays fast and reads the play well. Through hard work, Wiitanen has developed tremendous speed, which wasn’t a strong aspect of his game up until now. Wiitanen is the classic case of being in a second-chance situation. After playing at Gavilan in 2017, Wiitanen said he took a scholarship offer to play at the College of Idaho in Caldwell, a NAIA program. Wiitanen said he took part in the spring game there, but left the school shortly after that.
“I talked to Idaho in January 2018 and once they offered, I jumped ship really fast,” he said. “I was so focused on getting out that I took a visit, signed the papers and then realized it was the wrong fit.”
Wiitanen returned to the Bay Area and since then flirted with De Anza and Gavilan, changing his mind several times before deciding to go with Gavilan. He planned on playing last season but wasn’t eligible due to grades. What looked like a bleak situation turned into something greater.
“Having to take that gray shirt (last year) was probably the best thing, a blessing in disguise,” he said. “I was battling some injuries, school wasn’t going so well and taking a step back allowed me to think things through. In doing so, I made friendships for life and my grades improved immensely.”
Wiitanen credited his friend Jake Rhine for giving him a gentle nudge to return to Gavilan.
“He told me to come back, and I’ve started to find my love for the school and football again,” Wiitanen said.
9/6 vs. Los Medanos, 6 p.m.
9/14 vs. Redwoods in Eureka, 1 p.m.
9/21 vs. De Anza, 1 p.m.
9/28 at Monterey Peninsula, 6 p.m.
10/5 vs. Hartnell, 1 p.m.
10/12 at Foothill, 1 p.m.
10/19 at Reedley, 1 p.m.
10/26 vs. Cabrillo, 1 p.m.
11/9 at San Jose City, 1 p.m.
11/16 vs. Merced, 1 p.m.
Note: All home games at Gilroy High