WATSONVILLE — The Pajaro Valley High football program is ripping a slogan right out of the Marine Corps’ handbook.
The few, the proud, the Grizzlies.
Pajaro Valley, a school with an enrollment of a little more than 1,400 students, has just 13 seniors on its 27-player roster. Only six of those seniors, however, played varsity football last season. Diego Navarro, Irepan Romero, Jaylen Carreon, Adrian Silva, Angel Chavez and Daivian Quintana have all had to become player-coaches in order to smooth the incoming players’ learning curve.
Several of the new faces have played football in the past — either as freshman or sophomores — but none have played for first-year head coach Kevin Cordova, who last year served as the offensive coordinator for the Grizzlies in now-retired head coach Joe Gregorio’s swan song.
The good news? Cordova has kept most of the same concepts from last year’s playbook, while adding in a few more wrinkles for certain situations. It’s allowed the six returning seniors and three returning juniors to aid Cordova and the rest of the coaching staff in bringing the newcomers up to speed.
“We threw a lot at them in the summer and now we’re cleaning things up,” Cordova said. “They’re doing a good job with everything. They know more than they did last year, that’s for sure.”
Pajaro Valley last year finished off its season with arguably the program’s biggest win, beating cross-city rival Watsonville High in the 10th annual Belgard Kup Game. It was the Grizzlies’ second-ever win over the Wildcatz and it was a sweet one. The victory sent Gregorio, who led Pajaro Valley for six seasons, out on the right note and also erased any chance Watsonville had at a Central Coast Section playoff berth.
Pajaro Valley is eager to keep the Kup inside its trophy case at 500 Harkins Slough Road but insisted that the rematch with Watsonville on Nov. 3 at Cabrillo College is just one of 10 games that are all important in the program’s hunt for its first-ever CCS playoff berth.
“I feel like beating Watsonville last year just makes us set the bar a lot higher this year,” Carreon said. “We beat them last year and we want to defend the Kup and keep it here. But I feel like we should just focus on the upcoming games. We can’t look ahead to that one. We have to take each game one at a time.”
This season could very well turn out to be the Grizzlies’ winningest campaign. None of their four preseason opponents — St. Francis High, Greenfield High, Soquel High and Lynbrook High — had a winning record last year and a hot start heading into what figures to be a competitive Monterey Bay League Pacific division slate could lead to Pajaro Valley’s first winning season since 2007.
“We’ve got to win more — that’s it,” said Romero, who is entering his third varsity season. “We have the guys to do it. We have to win more.”
Romero will be far and away the Grizzlies’ most experienced player when he lines up at center to kick off the season at Emmett M. Geiser Field against St. Francis on Aug. 25. The 5-foot-8, 190-pounder will be joined by tall senior tackles Michael English (6-2, 210) and Juan Pinto (6-3, 178) and returning junior guards Josue Gutierrez (5-6, 207) and Marcos Aguilar (5-11, 296).
The line does not have the same overwhelming size as last year’s group, which featured 6-foot-4, 278-pound Daniel “Puddin” Perez, 5-foot-10, 260-pound Isiah Espinoza and 5-foot-11, 230-pound Alfonso Melgoza, but the quintet does have a good amount of athleticism and Aguilar is a wrecking ball in the interior.
“We might be smaller but we’re faster and we’re stronger in the weight room,” Carreon said. “We put a lot more work in.”
Carreon is one of three Pajaro Valley running backs who packed on the muscle since the end of last season. The 5-foot-9, 184-pounder will share carries with juniors Mauricio Saurez and Russell Pablo. Saurez (5-11, 191) saw plenty of action last season but Pablo (5-8, 155) chose not to play football in 2016. All three have impressed Cordova.
“I think what’s been big for us this year is all of our backs are seeing the holes a lot better,” Cordova said. “We changed some things up on our line and so far it’s working.”
The player handing the ball off to the trio will be new to the varsity level, too. Senior Danny Jimenez Carrillo is back after not playing last season, while junior Max Arevalo ran the offense at the junior varsity level last year. Arevalo has a better grasp of the offense and is accurate from the pocket but Jimenez Carrillo has a good set of wheels, making him a serviceable dual-threat QB.
Seniors Marco Bermudez, Adrian Padilla, Silva and Navarro will all see time at wideout. At 6-foot-1, Bermudez provides a tall and dependable target in the red zone.
“He’s got decent speed but he’s got really good hands and a great feel for the ball,” Cordova said. “That’s going to help open up some stuff for us.”
Bermudez, Padilla and Silva will also be called upon to make plenty of plays on the other side of the ball in the defensive backfield. Bermudez will be the last line of defense as the deep safety, while Padilla and Silva will man the two cornerback spots.
Carreon will play the all-important force player, which serves as a cross between a safety and a linebacker.
Romero and Aguilar are back leading the defensive line from the two interior spots. Pinto, who did not play last year as he recovered from a dislocated shoulder and hernia, has also given the team a nice boost at defensive end.
“He’s a good, long defender on the edge,” Cordova said. “We needed that.”
In the heart of the defense, Quintana (5-11, 207), Chavez (5-9, 207) and Saurez will fill the linebacker spots.
Much of the team’s success will be riding on this year’s senior class. Romero and Carreon said that they are not only aware of what is expected of them but have embraced the responsibility.
“Me and the rest of the seniors have to set the example for the rest of the guys,” Romero said. “If we do stupid stuff it’s going to trickle down to them. We had to set a good example for them so they could follow it.”
Added Carreon: “We’re a very young team. I feel like we have to mature more on the field but I think we can do it.”