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Football ’16: A Senior Class Full Of Skill Players Powers Maybe Best St. Mary’s-Stockton Team Yet Story by RICHARD ESTRADA | Photos by JAMES... Year Of The Ram

Football ’16: A Senior Class Full Of Skill Players Powers Maybe Best St. Mary’s-Stockton Team Yet


Parents and fans watching from the bleachers see only a group of sweaty high school kids preparing for another football season. Tony Franks, who has led the St. Mary’s-Stockton program to an average of 10 wins a season since 2004, sees a three-year investment.

The Rams’ senior class has the potential to be the school’s most talented in years, though it has daunting challenges and plenty of games to play before making that determination.

Don’t forget, the 2004 team featured prolific quarterback Willie Tuitama and five other players who signed with Division I college programs, while Franks’ 2008 squad went to a State Bowl during the era when fewer than a dozen schools throughout the state were selected.

Tuitama’s team went 13-1 and won the Sac-Joaquin Section Div. I title 12 years ago, before the state bowl era arrived. That remains the school record for wins in one season, and it’s one the 2016 Rams believe they can attain and possibly surpass when December rolls around.

Hulking linemen like Popo Aumavae and Cole Norgaard, fleet receivers like Dewey Cotton and Keaton Hampton, a savvy quarterback like Jake Dunniway, a high-IQ safety like David Ford leading the secondary … are just a few of the reasons for such optimism.

“The last two years, we were just one play away. One play from a section title, then last year, one play from making it back,” said Aumavae, a 6-foot-4, 315-pounder being pursued by the nation’s top collegiate programs. “Some of us seniors have been up there for three years, so we have the experience. This is our shot at getting to a state bowl, winning a state championship.”

Popo AumavaeThe foundation for that title run will be an offense that features explosive players at every skill position, and an experienced offensive line anchored by Aumavae — the Tri-City Athletic League MVP as a junior. He has 17 reported offers and high atop his list is resurgent Michigan, USC and Oregon from the Pac-12, and Mississippi from the legendary Southeastern Conference.

“I’ve been talking to Alabama lately and I’d love to have a top five that includes them,” said Aumavae, a two-way starter for the Rams who will eventually be committed to one side of the line. “I like playing defense, getting out there and charging at people, hitting people. There’s been talk of eventually moving to guard, because 6-foot-4 isn’t tall for a college tackle.”

Teammates Norgaard (University of Nevada) and Cotton (Sacramento State) announced their oral commitments earlier this year, and a handful of other Rams could eventually land in Div. I and II programs, but Aumavae doesn’t expect to make an early announcement.

“I want to take my five visits, really get a feel for where I want to go to school and play football, and make my decision on signing day,” said Aumavae, joined on the defensive line this fall by returning starters Norgaard, Keller Salmon and Jordan Stinhilver. “I want to focus on the football this fall. No one on this field wants to walk away with anything but a championship.”

That brings us to Dunniway, who threw 26 touchdowns and just four interceptions as a junior, completing 65 percent of his passes for 2,584 yards. He was 10-2, losing shootouts to Los Gatos (33-30) in September and then eventual section-champion Folsom (56-49) in the semifinals.

Dunniway’s football IQ outweighs his physical assets. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder hasn’t shown himself to be a threat running from the pocket, and lacks the height most coaches want in pocket passers. However, he’ll benefit from lining up behind three returning starters in Aumavae, Mike Prefling (6-2, 250) and Jarett Carl (6-1, 230). Add in Norgaard — who Nevada recruited as an offensive tackle — add kids like To’a Heck (6-3, 245) and junior Max Barth (6-6, 280), and the Rams have size.

“Taking care of the ball is a priority in this offense,” said Dunniway, who threw 19 TDs compared to just one interception in his final nine games last fall. “I tell myself not to force the ball if it’s not there.”

What’s Dunniway capable of? Ask Napa, which had left a path of destruction in its wake last year while compiling an 11-0 record — before hosting St. Mary’s in a Div. I quarterfinal. Dunniway completed 18 of his 26 throws for 350 yards and four TDs in the Rams’ 28-14 victory. The next week, he was 16 of 28 for 353 yards and two TDs in the loss to Folsom.

His top two receivers are also three-year varsity players, though they come in very different packages. The 5-5, 155-pound Cotton and 6-foot, 170-pound Hampton combined for 90 catches for 1,863 yards and 22 TDs, and junior Marcus Aponte returns after catching 27 passes.

Keaton Hampton  That offense is expected to shoulder the burden, at least the first half of the season, while the Rams rebuild their back two layers on defense. Safety David Ford is one of the few in the back seven with ample game experience, which explains why he is the last line of defense.

“Playing safety gives you the big picture, while the cornerback is focused on his receiver,” explained Ford, a 3.8 student with an interception and eight tackles behind the line in 2015. “I’m just 5-foot-8, which some people think is too small. That’s why I’ve got this chip on my shoulder.”

That defense will be tested immediately: The season opens Aug. 27 with a trip to Serra-San Mateo, a West Catholic Athletic League heavy. Cardinal Newman-Santa Rosa and four-time defending CIF Small School State Bowl-champ Central Catholic-Modesto follow. Then St. Mary’s visits St. John Bosco-Bellflower before opening defense of its Tri-City Athletic League crown.

The running game will be in transition — bruising Brandon Zaunbrecher is gone after running for 1,200 yards and 19 TDs — while the Rams face their most difficult regular-season foes.

Dusty Frampton could be one of the few juniors thrust into a key role, after the 5-foot-11, 215-pounder ran for 710 yards and 17 TDs last fall. He scored four touchdowns in the playoff opener against Stagg-Stockton, and four more in the loss to Folsom.

Adding to the Rams’ challenge is that they will be pushed into the Div. I playoffs, to face the largest schools in the section, if they win the TCAL. St. Mary’s, a parochial co-ed school with just 900 students, could be facing schools nearly three times its size.

“One reason we‘re playing this schedule is to get us ready for those playoff teams,” said Dunniway, who had five scoring throws of 70 yards or more last season. “As a quarterback, it’s going to feel great playing behind this offensive line. We’re all looking for the same thing here.”

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