Behind A New Coach And A Blossoming Star At Quarterback, An Exciting New Chapter Is Being Written At Natomas •
Story by JIM MCCUE | Photos by JAMES K. LEASH
Rome was not built in a day. But a new era of Natomas High football has progressed by leaps and bounds in the first six months since its creation.
“It’s starting to work and I couldn’t be more proud of the team because they are working hard,” said Don DeRosa, head coach and architect of the Sacramento program’s rebuild. “The most important thing that we are trying to do is to have the kids take accountability — on the field, in the classroom and in the community.
“We talk about doing the right thing when no one is watching. Winning is important, but that’s not the ultimate goal.
The goals DeRosa set for his student-athletes are lofty, but the Nighthawks have embraced them and the changes have translated into success on the field as well. Natomas, which has not exceeded six wins in a season and has qualified for the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs only twice since nearby Inderkum opened in 2005, entered their October 27 meeting against Capital Christian-Sacramento with a 5-3 record and a 2-1 mark in Golden Empire League play.
DeRosa believes the on-field achievement is a byproduct of the leadership and accountability players have adopted, but talent at the game’s most important position certainly helps.
Junior quarterback Adrian Torres is among the section leaders in completions, yards and touchdowns, and may be the region’s biggest surprise. A relative unknown who completed just over half of his passes and threw nearly twice as many interceptions as TDs in his sophomore campaign, Torres has been a big reason for the Nighthawks’ newfound success. Through eight games, he completed 67 percent of his passes and threw for 2,210 yards while connecting for 28 TDs with seven interceptions.
The big numbers put up by Torres are nearly identical to another underclassman under center — Folsom junior quarterback Kaiden Bennett — but the 5-foot-9 Natomas product is perhaps easily overlooked due to the recent history of the program and lack of prototypical QB size. Torres is listed at just 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds.
“If you had a room of 50 football players, he does not look or act like a typical football player, and definitely not like a quarterback that is as successful as he has been,” DeRosa said. “He is a quiet leader, but when he speaks, he speaks volumes and the others really respect him.”
Despite the low profile, Torres is excelling and making opponents take notice. Natomas has played in six one-score games, including three games decided by one point, and owns a 4-2 record in those close games.
“Those tight games are more intense and that gets us more motivated,” Torres said. “We know that we can pull out the win and believe in each other to do it.”
The supporting cast includes receivers Jadon Johnson, Tyler King, Damani Richardson and Chris Gary; lead running back Jamar Walker; and an undersized offensive line that has been diminished by injury, but not overwhelmed by the opposition. Torres is quick to deflect credit to his teammates, most of whom must play both ways.
“We always have each other’s back and I can’t do anything without my teammates,” Torres said. “You have to have faith in your line and they will have faith in you, and trust your backs and receivers and they will trust in you.”
DeRosa puts trust in Torres and the rest of the Nighthawks to make adjustments and make plays. The coach gives his players freedom to call an audible or change an offensive or defensive alignment because he believes they can often see things better on the field than he and his coaches can see the from the sidelines. And, if the call is wrong, there is only discussion and not punishment.
In overtime against Marysville, the Nighthawks trailed by seven when they scored a touchdown. DeRosa called a timeout, and was met with a confident offense lobbying to go for the win with a two-point conversion.
“The players came to the sideline and Adrian and the guys said, ‘Let’s win it right now. We got this!,’” the coach said. “I was all in because the team was believing in themselves and ready with the play to win.”
Torres called for a simple “rub” play that got Gary open in the end zone for a 37-36 win.
The victories have built more confidence and a growing following as the Natomas student body and community have turned out in greater numbers each week. DeRosa admits some parents still do not know him by name and refer to him as “the De La Salle coach” since he played and later coached at the well-known Bay Area football powerhouse, and he’s just fine with that.
“From the first day in May, we have talked about building a program from the bottom up,” DeRosa said. “That means that we have the kids and coaches on the same page from the feeder program all the way to the varsity level.
“We are holding everyone accountable and kids have to earn their playing time by working hard in school, practice, the weight room, study hall and in the community.”
DeRosa has seen programs build and rebuild as he coached at the high school level and youth programs before taking time away in recent years to enjoy his three sons’ playing days in college in the Pacific Northwest. His first opportunity to construct a program from the ground up came under the tutelage of Northern California’s most decorated high school football coach, Bob Ladouceur.
Upon graduation from Saint Mary’s College where he played as a lineman, DeRosa asked then-Gaels coach Dick Mannini if he knew of any local programs looking for coaching help. Mannini connected DeRosa with Ladouceur, who played for the coach at San Jose State, and who had just been hired to take over the football program at DeRosa’s prep alma mater.
“I really needed coaches, and Don was awesome from t he get go,” Ladouceur said. “He was enthusiastic and very positive, and related well to the kids.”
One of the most impressive things DeRosa did to kickstart a Spartans’ program coming off of a 1-9 campaign in 1978 was to help build a weight room from scratch. Ladouceur had little to no budget, so DeRosa, who could weld, built benches and squat racks from scrap.
“I quickly realized that this guy can do a lot of things for the program,” Ladouceur said, “and he coached well. He helped turn the program around in the three years that he was with me, and it’s great to see that he has come somewhat full circle in coaching, and to have a chance to build something that’s all his own.”
Ladouceur wrote a letter of recommendation for DeRosa and the Nighthawks hope their new coach finds just a portion of the success that his first stop would eventually see.
Torres wants the success and accompanying fun to continue this year and beyond. The quarterback said his team believes that it can compete for a league title, earn a playoff berth, and go far in the postseason. And, beyond that, he wants to keep playing at the next level.
“I put in the work every day because I want to play in college,” Torres said. “I want to keep playing until I can’t play anymore.”
For now, Torres, DeRosa, and the Nighthawks will focus on the next class, practice and game.
The new era of Natomas football will have more days to keep building.