The Christopher High football team proved it could hang with an upper-tier A-league team like San Benito High. But now the Cougars have a golden opportunity to show they can actually beat a perennial Central Coast Section power when they play host to Aptos on Saturday at 2pm in a key Gabilan Division contest.
Salinas, Palma, San Benito and Aptos have separated themselves from the rest of the A-division, and CHS would love nothing more than to come in as gangbusters.
“MVC, Seaside, Alvarez, Alisal and ourselves, none of us are at the same level as the Big Four right now,” Cougars coach Darren Yafai said. “Our goal is to prove to ourselves and everyone else not just to be competitive against them, but maybe knock off one of those teams.”
Rossi Oteri, a senior running back and inside linebacker, has been a big reason why the Cougars (4-2 overall, 3-1 in league) have already had their most successful season ever in the A division. At his best on defense, the burly 5-foot-10, 185-pound Oteri resembles a heat-seeking missile, flying into an opposing team’s backfield to tackle the quarterback or running back.
Oteri has also been a gem of a find on offense this season as he is playing tailback for the first time in his prep career. In the team’s latest victory, a 24-0 win over Seaside, Oteri showcased all of his offensive skills, rushing for 56 yards on 10 carries and hauling in five passes for 40 yards.
In the Covid spring season, Oteri helped out the team at offensive tackle after one of the starting lineman went down. Once the season was over and summer conditioning and 7 on 7 passing leagues started, he was rewarded for his sacrifice by being asked to play running back.
Christopher utilizes Eric Argumnedo and Payton Wheeler in the backfield as well, giving the team three solid options to run the ball. While Oteri is known for making bone-crunching tackles, he admits the feeling of reaching the end zone is equally euphoric.
“I love playing both sides of the ball,” Oteri said. “Making those big hits feels pretty great, but scoring touchdowns here and there is pretty fun, too.”
Oteri has the proverbial motor that never stops along with all the intangibles, earning high praise from former Cougars coach Tim Pierleoni and now from Yafai.
“Rossi is a talented kid and has a lot of desire,” Yafai said. “He’s one of the smartest linebackers I’ve ever coached. If you combine the experience, intelligence and physical toughness, it allows him to make up for size in that he’s not a prototypical big linebacker. He’s built more like a defensive back but is able to play inside backer at such a high level because he’s tough, smart and has a lot of experience. He also has a great desire to get to the ball carrier and bring him down.”
Oteri raved about his teammates as key to the team playing great defense. Luis Ramos, Osvaldo Jimenez and Kingsley Okoronkwo hold down the defensive line, but there is also plenty of depth behind the starters when they need a breather or should injuries occur. Aldo Najar, Omar Mancias-Nandino, Jace Carrasco and Vincenzo Mesa all have seen significant playing time this season.
“We’re not real big, but we have depth, toughness and some speed,” Yafai said.
Oteri, Wheeler, Argumnedo and Mason Pena are rock solid at the linebacker positions, while Jaterius Lee, Nick Pham, Damiann Gomez and Jermaine Thomas form a ball-hawking secondary that has a dozen-plus interceptions this season. Lee has been absolutely dynamite playing both ways, having returned two interceptions for touchdowns and hauling in a half-dozen TD receptions.
“We have a lot of playmakers and a lot of hard workers,” Oteri said. “We have guys who really come to play and know what they’re doing.”
Offensively, quarterback Spencer Gorgulho has found his rhythm, and Mike Cambria had a 20-yard scoring reception against Seaside.
Even though the Cougars are playing some of the stingiest defense in the CCS, it faces its toughest test yet in Aptos, which plays the Wing-T offense as crisp, efficient and fast as anyone in the section. That’s why Oteri is spending even more time studying film for this week’s opponent.
“It’ll be a big challenge for us,” he said. “Aptos is very disciplined and quick, kind of like us. They really get after it, and their linemen are always jumping out to the second level. We have to get used to their tempo and their misdirection trick plays because they play really fast.”
No kidding. Aptos is averaging 45 points per game and with the exception of a 14-point performance against probable league champion Salinas, has scored 38 or more points in every game this season.
“I’m telling our guys this is a whole new level and we’re going to need to weather the storm early on,” Yafai said. “If we can do that, I think we have the toughness and talent to hang in there.”
Oteri has been playing football since he was 6 years old. He’s still growing into his body as he just turned 17, which is young for a senior in high school. Coaches refer to him as a pure ballplayer for his ability to stay intense and focused. Oteri said the team’s 35-0 win over Monte Vista Christian on Sept. 24 was the highlight of the season so far because things clicked from the outset.
“That night I remember how we were all ready to come out of the gate strong,” he said. “Everyone came out and made big plays, and as a team we took a big step forward that night.”
Off the field, Oteri is like any other teen: he likes to have fun and let loose. He recently came up with a Homecoming proposal in which he dressed up like country singer Luke Combs and played one of his girlfriend’s favorite songs. Whether Oteri is delivering hits on the field or mimicking professional singers, he’s enjoying each moment.
Oteri’s willingness to play offensive tackle in the spring showed he likes to take on new challenges.
“It was definitely a little harder having to push guys twice your size on that defensive line, but I was able to hold the line,” he said. “It does give me more appreciation for my linemen after going through that myself. I know how hard of a job it is and I’ll be there to support them every step of the way.”