Editor’s note: Herald sportswriter John Devine is spending much of this month visiting Monterey County high schools to get a sneak peek of their football teams. This is the eighth in a series of previews. To see other previews once they are published, visit: montereyherald.com/sports/high-school-sports/
SALINAS — No question, it’s a streak for the ages, an unprecedented postseason run that has taken Palma through four different decades.
Yet, it’s not the chase of 36 straight playoff appearances that garners respect as much as it is that the Chieftains have posted winning seasons each year, challenged for supremacy each fall.
There have been 28 league football titles and 11 Central Coast Section crowns captured. The playoffs are just one goal among several that have been in place since the streak started in 1984 when head coach Jeff Carnazzo was a senior and a two-way starter.
“It never enters my mind that we have to make the playoffs,” said Carnazzo, now in his 21st year. “But we never ever take it for granted either. It’s not easy.”
Carnazzo was on the Palma team that started the streak as a running back/linebacker. The program has not skipped a beat in his 20 years as the team’s head coach, racking up 186 wins.
“Our goal is to win all of our games,” Carnazzo said. “It’s a lofty goal. But it’s not our only goal. We set high goals. Sometimes you have to alter your goals. No script ever goes as planned.”
Those who wondered if Palma’s dominance was coming to an end after three consecutive losses to Salinas were silenced last spring when the Chieftains posted a 7-6 win in a pandemic-shortened season.
Of course, the days of the uniform and bagpipes intimidating opponents may be numbered.
That’s not to suggest the curtain is falling at Palma as much as programs in the region are beginning to catch up to the perennial powers.
“I’m a big fan of leadership,” Carnazzo said. “That’s what we’re seeing with the coaches in the area. It matters. For me, it’s beyond football. We want to build kids, help them become productive adults, good fathers. The longer I’m in this, the more important that becomes.”
The Chieftains’ offense has varied over the years based on their personnel. What’s remained constant in their years of dominance is a powerful offensive line.
Over the past five years, it’s had two players earn athletic scholarships to Pac-12 schools, with Drew Dalman now in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons.
The heartbeat of the offense for Palma may endure growing pains early as Carnazzo projects three sophomores in the trenches this fall.
“That’s our biggest challenge,” Carnazzo said. “We’re going to be young. There is a lot of learning. You win and lose up front. We’ll go through some bumps. But the future looks bright.”
The present is always what matters for Palma, which has a schedule this year that will feature eight teams that reached the postseason in 2019.
What was discovered last year is the Chieftains’ depth in the backfield. JoJo Cardinale and Luke Alvarez both filled in for the injured JC Escutia without the offense skipping a beat.
Both are back along with Escutia, who came up as a freshman for the playoffs in 2019 and piled up nearly 100 yards.
Cleared to play in late July, Escutia continued to work out with his upper body the day after surgery for a broken ankle.
“You talk about the ability to grind,” Carnazzo said. “He is so driven. This kid wants the ball. But I will take it slow with him. It’s a big benefit to have Luke and JoJo that can run the ball.”
What will make the ground game that much more effective is an efficient passing attack. There were flashes last year from quarterback Luke Rossi.
A starter since his sophomore year, Rossi is athletic with a strong arm. Finding that accuracy will make the offense dangerous, especially with the return of 6-foot-6 tight end Joey Finley and the emergence of sophomore receiver Logan Saldate.
While colleges are looking at Finley — who also excels in basketball and baseball — as a defensive end, he averaged over 15 yards a catch last year with a touchdown reception from Rossi.
“He’s getting a lot of attention right now,” Carnazzo said. “I imagine he’ll have some offers. He’s still raw. He understands where his talents lie. He wants to play football. He has athleticism and talent.”
Having Finley back on the defensive line along with Javy Avila will force opponents to adjust their game plans around the pair.
Finley swatted a handful of passes last year coming off the edge, while Avila could command double teams in the trenches.
Cardinale and Alvarez will solidify the secondary, along with Saldate, who was brought up last spring as a freshman to fill a need, intercepting a pass.
“I think the level of play will rise,” Carnazzo said. “It will be better than in the past. We had a spring season and a summer to perfect things. I think teams will be generally more prepared.”