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 sixth in a series of previews. To see other previews once they are published, visit: montereyherald.com/sports/high-school-sports/
SALINAS — It hurt to witness. Injuries piled up immediately for an undermanned first-year varsity program with no seniors on its roster.
Rancho San Juan had two options last year. Play within the Salinas Union High School District or wait another year to debut at the varsity level.
The Trailblazers took the field and absorbed a punishing three-game pandemic season, outscored 168-0 in losses to Alvarez, North Salinas and Alisal — with running clocks in the second half.
Injuries forced them to cancel one game. Clearly, it was not the debut first-year head coach Troy Emrey envisioned.
“We tried to put kids in a position to be successful last year,” Emrey said. “Obviously, as a staff we did not do a great job of that. We were put in a bad spot.”
Rancho San Juan was supposed to be in the Cypress Division last fall. The pandemic crushed that, forcing them to endure severe growing pains against opponents it didn’t match up against.
“What last year did for us as a staff was install and reinforce fundamentals,” Emrey said. “That was beneficial for us. We retained most of our kids. So that was a positive.”
The Trailblazers aren’t the first program to struggle in their initial season. North County was winless in 1978, while it took Marina three years before it won its first game.
As rough as last season was, it served as motivation in the offseason. No one on the Trailblazers has forgotten the punishment they took. It has fueled players to make amends.
“It’s something that has been brought up,” Emrey said. “We will learn from what happened and go forward with our program. No question last year will serve as an incentive.”
The return of a Pacific Coast Athletic League schedule this year means Rancho San Juan will be in the Cypress Division — a more competitive playing field for the young program.
“If we are doing our job as coaches, it will never look like last year again,” Emrey said. “We have made it a point of emphasis to create a positive culture going forward. We’re seeing that this summer.”
Obstacles still remain for the Trailblazers. This is a program still searching for its first points as a varsity program — and its initial first down.
Yet, as brutal as last spring’s abbreviated season was, experience was gained. Quarterback Nolan Tompkins is growing into the system, having been thrown into the fire as a sophomore.
Tompkins has better command of the offense, having built chemistry with a receiving corps that includes Guy Pimentel, a multi-sport standout on campus.
“Nolan has a better understanding of the offense,” Emrey said. “His command is growing. He’s put a lot of work into his fundamentals. I’m looking forward to seeing it pay off for him.”
An effective passing attack will keep opponents from stacking nine defenders in the box, perhaps giving running back Carlos Garcia an opportunity to find a seam to run through.
Yet, until that first point is produced offensively, there will be some pressure to put the conversation to bed. Establishing drives will build confidence going forward.
The defense, however, has to get better as well. Of the 168 points allowed, 132 came in the first half of games.
What Emrey didn’t have last year was an offseason in the weight room, a chance to work with his kids until mid-March because of the pandemic.
The Trailblazers have some parts to play with in lineman Orlando Ahumada and linebackers Jabari Reynolds, Mike Huff and Javier Placencia.
“I was concerned about their mindset after last season,” Emrey said. “What we’ve seen in practice is a competitive attitude, a hunger. A lot of kids have grown up. It’s a confident, maturing group.”