El Cerrito Hopes Dominant Spring Can Further Elevate A Rising Program; PLUS Nos. 14-12 Of Our NorCal Top 20 Revealed And A Spotlight On Inderkum’s Oshae Castleberry •
This is the ninth of 20 installments to our Return To Fall Series — a daily component to our 2021 NorCal Football Preview coverage.
For some, a spring football season filled with constant uncertainty, no fans in the stands and only a handful of games might not have seemed like the ideal setting to build momentum as a program. At El Cerrito High, that’s exactly what happened.
Head coach Jacob Rincon’s bunch ran roughshod over local competition, going 5-0 and outscoring its opponents by a whopping combined margin of 195 to 7.
That’s not a typo. One touchdown allowed in five games.
But while the Gauchos turned in a quintet of dominant performances in the solitude of empty stadiums, fans don’t necessarily need to worry that they missed the party.
El Cerrito returns plenty of talented pieces from that standout spring squad this fall, starting with a defensive secondary that has college coaches paying close attention.
Senior safety Robert Freeman, who doubles as a dynamic playmaker on offense, has played varsity football since his freshman year and holds offers from Southern Oregon and Arizona State. Cornerback Warren Smith has an offer from Colorado, two-way standout Aaron Woodard provides even more athleticism and hybrid safety/linebacker Jermaine Hargraves has sparked interest from the Pac-12 lately as well.
Where El Cerrito has also thrived in the most tumultuous of times is off the field. Accountability and resilience are characteristics the Gauchos have adopted when coming together as a group has been more important than ever.
“The discipline and leadership we have right now from our senior class as well as our junior class is excellent,” Rincon said. “It’s meeting standards and expectations for what we want in a program, so we’re really excited about it.
“Practice will start at 4 but they’re out there at 3:50 starting to warm up. As a coach, you can’t complain about any of that. The kids I think are eager and hungry just to be back at school, playing football again and getting back to some normalcy.”
El Cerrito will need to bring talent, discipline, leadership and everything else it can muster to navigate a nonleague schedule that ranks arguably among the region’s toughest. Home games against Marin Catholic-Kentfield and Bishop O’Dowd-Oakland, combined with road trips to Vintage-Napa and Monte Vista-Danville, will set the table for another competitive Tri County Athletic League Rock Division campaign.
“We want to compete. We want to play with the top tier teams in the areas that we can schedule for,” Rincon said. “I like to load up our nonleague so we can get our kids to be committed and focused in our offseason program and try to get them prepared to play these teams. We want to take El Cerrito to the premier programs and get to hopefully Division I competition. It’s starting the process and we’ve got to take care of our business.”
PRESEASON NORCAL TOP 20 RANKINGS: Nos. 14-12
14. JESUIT-CARMICHAEL (3-2)
One has to go all the way back to 2011 to mark the last time the Marauders finished a year below .500 — and that streak won’t be ending this year. Not with 17 starters returning to 4660 Fair Oaks Blvd. That group returns after a 3-2 spring season in which its only losses were to De La Salle-Concord and St. Mary’s-Stockton, teams which finished No. 1 and 12, respectively, in our final spring rankings. Nelson Hemmert, a senior 3-star lineman on 247sports.com, will be the linchpin up front for Jesuit. Skill players to watch include senior RB/DBs Kai Santos and Garrett McGriff. Keep an eye out for the air connection of QB Preston Vukovich and WR Jackson Hagopian.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 27 at Folsom
13. MENLO-ATHERTON-ATHERTON (5-0)
Menlo-Atherton finished its spring season a perfect 5-0 record while outscoring opponents 177-55. Now second-year coach Chris Saunders prepares for his first full season and does so with the luxury of having a 3-year starting QB. Matt MacLeod has been among the efficient QBs in the Bay Area since taking the starting job in 2019. In 16 stats he’s thrown 27 TDs and just two INTs across 252 attempts. He’s got several of his favorite targets back too, including seniors Jalen Moss, Jeremiah Earby and Johnnie Barbie. The Bears’ fortunes this fall will depend on the how well they can replace the seven linemen lost to graduation.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 27 at Bellarmine-San Jose
12. CLAYTON VALLEY-CONCORD (4-2)
Just because the titles came nearly two years ago, it’s worth noting that the Ugly Eagles remain the defending North Coast Section Div. II and CIF Div. 2-AA State Bowl champions. They’re also the defending East Bay Athletic League-Mountain Division champions from last spring. (De La Salle-Concord plays in the EBAL-Mountain, but is considered an independent.) Clayton Valley is replacing approximately 11 starters across both sides of the ball, but still has plenty of talent at its disposal. That includes dual-threat QB Brenden Bush, his twin brother Alex Bush at WR/DB, and three-year tailback Rahsaan Woodland II. Fellow three-year guys Jared Palega (LB/OL), Tariq Adams (RB/DB) and Amari Comier (DE) will lead a stout defense.
FIRST GAME: Aug. 27 at Turlock
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Inderkum’s Top Tiger
Either Inderkum-Sacramento held a program-wide communications meeting to present consistent messaging, or Oshae Castleberry is just that good.
Regardless, the 5-foot, 11-inch, 180-pound senior was the only answer given to the same question posed to coaches, players and even fans during an Aug. 12 practice at Dave Tooker Stadium.
“Who is going to break out this season?”
To be fair, it’s been two years since teams began a full season, so nearly every standout is going to be a “breakout” player. Inderkum just happens to believe the player who could lead them to a 15th consecutive 10-win (or better) season and 14th conference title in 15 years is Castleberry.
“No one knows who I am,” Castleberry said. “But that COVID year made a huge impact on my improvement, and when I did get in last year, I made plays.
“I made big plays when they mattered.”
Castleberry played a critical role in Inderkum’s 7-6 win over previously unbeaten Yuba City last year in the season finale. His favorite play was a quarterback sack against Antelope, the team that beat Inderkum 33-7 and looms Oct. 15 on the Capital Valley Conference schedule.
Inderkum will have to be especially stout to win the CVC this year, and also faces SportStars preseason Top-20 squad Jesuit (No. 14) on Sept. 25.
“I have been telling teammates that this is an opportunity right now,” Castleberry said. “We are playing teams with kids who have offers, and it’s our time to make plays and show who really is the best.”
On defense, Castleberry is an outside linebacker and hybrid nickel defender. It’s where he believes he will shine most.
“That’s where I am most explosive,” he said. “I’m stopping the run or getting to the receiver on my side, or I am going after the sack.”
Inderkum is without 2020 coach Casey Taylor, now at Oak Ridge, and 2020 quarterback Maealiuaki Smith, who started as a Inderkum freshman, but is now at Granite Bay.
“When certain pieces leave, you get stuck, but we did have (co-offensive coordinator Terrence Leonard) there to pick us up when we fell, and (new head coach Reggie Harris) brought stability to the team, and he is making us better.”
Harris, who was on the Grant-Sacramento staff that won an open division state title in 2008, returns to Sacramento after a bevy of success as assistant head coach at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
He faces certain challenges in building up execution consistency with a new program, but players like Castleberry will make it a little easier.
“He is a great young man, and he leads his team well,” Harris said. “He fights for every yard when given an opportunity and I just think that the young man exhibits the standards and mission of the school and he is a leader in the classroom.”
COMING IN TOMORROW’S RETURN TO FALL RELEASE: More Preseason Top 20 Teams Are Revealed, Plus A Player Spotlight On Jesuit’s Jackson Hagopian And MORE