Prep powerhouses | September 11, 2009 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Cover Story - September 11, 2009

Prep powerhouses

Teams gear up for action on the gridiron

by Dennis Miller

For 12-year Monte Vista High football coach Craig Bergman, it's time for yet another grinding season in arguably the toughest prep football league in Northern California and one of the best in all of California.

For Mark Kessler, the first-year head coach at San Ramon Valley, it's time to take on the incredibly tough league with little time or luxury for a learning curve.

"I think it goes without saying," said Kessler about how tough the East Bay Athletic League is every year. "But that's what makes it exciting and challenging."

The two prep powerhouses begin their 2009 seasons tonight, as Monte Vista travels to Union City to take on James Logan, with San Ramon Valley also on the road, making the trip over the Altamont Pass to meet Merrill West.

Following is a preview of this year's Monte Vista and San Ramon Valley football squads.

Monte Vista Mustangs

The Mustangs have been one of the top programs in Northern California for close to 30 years now and under Bergman's guidance, the team is always among the top offensive units in California.

Expect much of the same this year, as the keys to the offense rest in the hands of senior quarterback Brett Nottingham.

Nottingham, who threw for over 3,000 yards last season and will head to UCLA next year, is the key for an offense which returns only three starters to a team that went 8-3, losing in the first round of the North Coast Section playoffs.

"It's like having another coach out there on the field," Bergman said of Nottingham.

Giving Nottingham a big boost in the backfield is returning 1,000 yard rusher Greg Johnson, as well as a young but talented group of receivers.

In fact, Nottingham will have up to seven different guys to throw to this year, including three young but impressive sophomores. One sophomore - Dalas Bruce - is bringing out comparisons to former three-year Monte Vista star wide out Sam DeSa.

A pair of juniors, Bryce McGovern and Dane Turner (the brother of former Monte Vista star Kale Turner), also have been looking very strong out wide.

"I feel real comfortable with putting those guys out there," said Bergman. "This is as deep as we've been at receiver in a long time."

But the big concern will be the offensive line where the Mustangs have all new faces replacing the talented lot that lined up last year and have now all graduated.

In addition, Jacob Welter, a 6-foot-4, 270 pounder, who figures to key the line, has been injured.

"He should be back by the first game," said Bergman. "That kid is going to be a good player."

Zack Dreyer and Brandon Selbach also both figure to carry big roles for the Monte Vista offensive line this year. The line could get some help from Dave Wilkerson, the Cal-bound linebacker, who in addition to carrying the ball will spend some time at tight end as well.

Joey Labarbera and Mike Sullas will also get key time at skill positions for Bergman's offensive unit.

On defense, the Mustangs return all three linebackers, with the trio among the elite in the area. Wilkerson, Labarbera and Sam Sherwood all are back to build the defense around. There could be a slight change, with Labarbera moving to safety and Ben Griffin moving into linebacker. Either way, the group figures to be the strength of the defense.

"That's a real good base to start with," said Bergman. "I feel our linebackers can hold up with anyone."

The defensive backfield is an athletic group, with Turner at safety and McGovern and Bruce at corners. If Labarbera indeed does move to safety, expect some fierce hitting coming out the backfield.

The line, as is the case with the offensive group, is a work in progress. But if history is any indicator, expect players like Mac Murphy, Derek Pratuch and Dreyer to turn into one of the league's best units.

Mike Eidman will handle the punting and long field goal attempts, with Matt Brown also getting a lot of time at kicker.

After three non-league games, the Mustangs will head into the very tough EBAL again.

"Obviously De La Salle is De La Salle," said Bergman. "But after that, it's a toss up. You could beat anyone or you could lose to any other team. I think all the coaches do a real good job - everyone is going to be competitive. It's going to be a lot of fun."

San Ramon Valley Wolves

On the surface, the deck certainly appears stacked against Kessler for his opening season running the San Ramon Valley program.

Not hired until after spring football, Kessler takes over a team with only four returning starters from a 9-4 team, which picked up a couple of big wins against Monte Vista.

But don't make the mistake of counting a San Ramon football team out of the mix. Every time the Wolves have an empty cupboard, the team rallies together and gets it done.

"We have a history of saying we don't rebuild at San Ramon, we re-load,'' said Kessler, who has been an assistant at San Ramon Valley since 2005. "We've been taking baby steps. It's been tough installing a new system without being able to use the spring. That has set us back, but the kids are making progress."

The task of taking over as quarterback for Joe Southwick (currently at Boise State) falls to senior Chris Comes. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound senior has a great arm, but needs game time to complete the package.

"He's your prototype drop-back quarterback," explained Kessler. "He's going to be very good, he just needs some experience.'"

Out wide, Justin Berger appears to be the top receiver at this point, but Dan Davis, Chris Brooks and Pat Brooks all figure to play big roles for the Wolves.

In the backfield joining Comes will be running backs Garrett Robinson, Michael Summers, Brad Bowen and Nick Eckel, with Brandon Grinstead, Craig Massoni, Ben Teichman, Stephen Wells and Justin Romans all coming together to lead the offensive line.

The tight end spot will fall on the big shoulders of Kyle Kragen, who also figures to be one of the top linebackers in the section.

On defense, the Wolves will welcome back coordinator Mike Nelson into the mix, which means the Wolves will be getting after it again on the defensive side of the field.

The 6-3, 218-pound Kragen should be a major force at linebacker.

"He's put together like a brick-house," said Kessler. "He's going to have a great season."

Ross Rudow returns at free safety to lead the defensive backfield along with Davis and Jordan Newell.

Joining Kragen at linebacker will be Robinson and Kyle Egan, while the defensive line will consist of Grinstead, Brian Church, Teichman and John Sheperdson.

The Wolves have had little time to come together as compared to the other programs in the EBAL, so Kessler is approaching the season with cautious optimism.

"Our expectations are to finish plays, to play hard and take care of the basics," said Kessler. "It's not fair in our league to set wins and losses as the goals. We want to better ourselves week by week. In my time at San Ramon, when we have deficiencies, kids step in to fill those roles. We are looking for kids to step up and they are starting to do just that."

Football schedules

Varsity games begin at 7 p.m.

Monte Vista Football Schedule

Sept. 11 - Logan at Logan

Sept. 18 - Pittsburg at Home

Sept. 25 - Heritage at Home

Oct. 2 - Livermore at Livermore

Oct. 9 - De La Salle at Home

Oct. 16 - Amador at Amador

Oct. 23 - Foothill at Home

Oct. 30 - Granada at Granada

Nov. 6 - Cal High at Home

Nov. 13 - San Ramon at San Ramon

San Ramon Valley High Football Schedule

Sept. 11 - West Tracy at West Tracy (7:15 p.m.)

Sept. 18 - Oakland at Home

Sept. 25 - Concord at Home

Oct. 2 - Cal High at Cal High

Oct. 9 - Foothill at Home

Oct. 16 - De La Salle at De La Salle

Oct. 23 - Livermore at Home

Oct. 30 - Amador at Home

Nov. 6 - Granada at Granada

Nov. 13 - Monte Vista at Home