After a rather bumpy 2013, Pittsburg has perhaps its best team in a decade.
Not unlike many coaches, Victor Galli paces the football sideline in almost constant agitation.
It’s not unusual for him to gain 20-30 yards between each snap of the football — often muttering to himself or his coaches in the booth as he goes. And that’s just when things are going particularly well for his Pittsburg High Pirates.
Pittsburg won 10 games and a Bay Valley Athletic League title in 2013, but it was anything but a smooth season for Galli and his team. A fighting incident surrounding a summer conditioning workout — leading to the expulsion of a top-end wide receiver talent — got things off on the wrong foot and the Pirates seemed to be playing catch up with themselves the rest of the way.
“It was pretty turbulent,” Galli admitted.
Starting quarterback Keith Walker suffered a serious shoulder injury in the first half of the team’s first game — a 37-21 loss to Analy-Sebastopol, a team which plays two playoff divisions lower than Pittsburg. Galli was forced to do some shuffling putting athletic tight end Armani Levias behind center and leaning almost exclusively on star running back Harris Ross.
To his credit, Ross was spectactular — but even he broke down. He fractured his leg and missed four games. He returned for an outstanding playoff performance in the North Coast Section Div. I quarterfinals, but re-injured the leg during the team’s 31-17 season-ending semifinal loss to California-San Ramon.
A little more than 8 months later Galli sits comfortably in his coaching office. Now in his 13th year at the helm of the storied program, Galli looks as refreshed and more at ease than he’s ever been. A look out across the Pittsburg weight room facility gives a good indication as to why.
The 2014 season has a chance to be a reward for Galli, his coaches and his returning players. A reward for coming out of 2013 as a stronger program.
“I was proud with the way we rebounded and stayed together,” Galli said. “We kept the course, and people can say what they want, but we just proved the heart and determination of our kids and what a great program that we have here.”
The word great could also describe the potential for this current group of Pirates, which could arguably be the most complete team Galli’s ever had. And it starts with defense.
“By far it’s the best defense I’ve been a part of,” said Noah Palega, a three-year starting linebacker and two-time All-BVAL selection. “Our secondary this year is the best it’s ever been.”
Palega isn’t just an over confident senior touting his boys. The Pirates secondary will indeed be among the team’s biggest strengths, led by nationally-ranked junior safety Shurod Thompson.
Thompson was a starter in the defensive backfield as a sophomore a year ago, and his talent was evident from the very beginning. He forced a fumble in his first game, blocked a field goal in his third game and returned a fumble recovery 70 yards for a touchdown in his fourth game. He finished the season with 71 tackles and three interceptions.
Thompson, who has played football since he was 8 years-old and now measures 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, followed up his breakout season with a strong summer at scouting combines. When Rivals.com released its first national prospect rankings for the Class of 2016, Thompson checked in at #64. His list of scholarship offers already includes half the Pac-12.
“He’s a big athletic, good looking kid. He passes the eye ball test,” Galli said. “School is important to him. He definitely wants to play at the next level. … The scary part is, as good as he is now and the recognition he gets now, he’s only scratching the surface. He’s not even there yet. When he gets there it’s going to be scarier than it already is.”
Thompson is joined in the secondary by returning senior cornerback Deante Fortenberry and incoming junior transfer Jordan Parker from Encinal-Alameda. Parker has both coaches and players excited about what he brings to the cornerback position.
“He has great man coverage (skills),” Fortenberry said of Parker. “He brings a lot of enthusiasm to the team. And you can just trust him.”
Galli says the other safety spot will feature C.J. McClure and Isaiah Turner.
“We feel we really have five guys back there who could eventually play Div. I college football,” the coach said. “As long as they do what they’re coached to do, and we as coaches put them in the right positions to make plays, we’ll be pretty formidable.”
Is it his best secondary at Pittsburg to date? Not yet, according to former Pirates standout and recent Oregon graduate Avery Patterson.
“Avery was working out here the other day and I told him how we’re excited about this secondary,” Galli said. “He stopped me and said, ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t your best secondary. The best one you had was 2008.’”
That secondary featured Patterson and current Washington State senior Tracy Clark at the cornerback positions and current Oregon senior Erick Dargan at strong safety. The free safety was Robert Jiles, who committed to Washington State but failed to qualify academically before bouncing around to a handful of smaller programs.
“Those guys were so cocky and good,” Galli said. “They were just nasty, nasty nasty. Like, hit you to put you in the morgue-type nasty. I would say their confidence set them apart. As for this year’s group, you can see that confidence building. They feel pretty good about themselves, and I would love to see them get to where those other guys were.”
Dargan has already done his part to help that progress, working with the players from this secondary over the summer.
“He’s been a Pirate before so he knows what it feels like,” Thompson said. “He’s at the next level. Learning things from people who have been in your same shoes makes things a lot easier.”
The best thing going for the development of this secondary is that it won’t be carrying all the weight. Pittsburg has seven returning defensive starters in all, including Palega and BYU-bound defensive end David Lui.
“Lui, he’s phenomenal,” Thompson said. “He’s just an athlete and he’s bigger than everybody. He’s gonna be a monster in the pass rush.”
The defense shouldn’t have to post shutouts, either. Ross is gone and now gray-shirting at Oregon State, but the offense is still in a good place. A primary reason for that is the healthy return of Walker at quarterback — and as a result, Levias’ return to tight end. Jaylyn Morgan, who rushed for close to 600 yards and eight touchdowns while playing in Ross’ absence a year ago, returns as the lead back.
“I’m expecting a lot of points being scored,” Morgan deadpanned.
Galli admits the offensive line — which graduated four starters — is the biggest work in progress, but hopes they can progress as quickly as the 2013 defense did when it returned only Palega.
“I like the potential,” he summed up. “I think we’re going to be competitive, but there are going to be a lot of competitive teams around here. I just hope that we can put it together and be in the mix.”
He’ll still be frenetically pacing the sidelines. But he might be smiling.
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