The No. 25 University of Redlands football team opens the 2017 season against Trinity University (TX) on Saturday night in front of an always-enthusiastic Rah Rah Redlands crowd in Ted Runner Stadium. With the Bulldogs' only regular-season loss coming in the opening game against the Tigers in San Antonio last year, the home team strives to reverse that outcome for a strong start to the current campaign.
"We know Trinity travels a lot and travels well. We expect them to be well-prepared and confident," Head Coach Mike Maynard stated. "We have to figure things out on the fly. Our sideline and halftime adjustments will make a big difference in the outcome of the game."
As an experienced coach, Maynard knows that the keys to game one are clear-cut yet integral to the team's immediate success and set the tone for the remainder of the season.
"One big thing is that we have to stay on the field in offense. In order to do that, we need to possess the ball, convert on third down, and keep moving the chains," he commented. "On defense we need to get off the field on third down, play smart, and avoids bad plays, like penalties, turnovers, etc."
It may sound simple enough for a 30-year coach of the reigning Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) Champions that scored the most points against the eventual national champions last season. But putting it all together in this first game requires excellent execution on all fronts.
With last season's success propelling them into the immediate future, Redlands looks forward to the contributions of a substantial list of familiar faces on offense. Among those leading the crew, senior quarterback Mitch Kidd (Salinas, CA) and senior wide receiver Cole Blackburn (Sammamish, WA) provide a lethal combination both on the field as competitors and as team captains. Kidd racked up 1,684 passing yards for 20 touchdowns as a first-year transfer in 2016. Blackburn collected a Second-Team All-SCIAC nod as the team's top receiving target with 54 catches for 606 yards last season. The duo strives to regenerate that chemistry going forward.
Sophomore David Molina (Laguna Hills, CA), senior Xavier Villanueva (Peoria, AZ), sophomore Mitchell Nickovich (Mission Viejo, CA), and senior dual-sport standout Kyle Kabeary (Indio, CA) add to the wide receiver corps, while first-year junior transfer Levi Plante (Lake Arrowhead, CA) is expected to push Kidd at the quarterback position.
The Maroon and Gray boasts an offensive line that is rich in depth and talent. Among them, the team holds high hopes for First-Team All-SCIAC honoree senior Matt Schallert (Canyon Lake, CA) and Second-Teamer junior Tommy Garcia (La Habra, CA) as staples in the trenches. They are complemented by senior Enrique Huerta (Whittier, CA), junior Christian Godina (Glendale, AZ), junior Tristan Skraber (Auburn, CA), senior Toma Suafoa-Aumavae (Long Beach, CA), senior Zachary Vazquez (Beaumont, CA), and plenty of others. In addition, Redlands welcomes a crazy-strong recruiting class of offensive lineman among the 69-member list of newcomers.
"This O-line could be really special," Maynard said. "They obviously have to prove it but it they are one of the best that we've had in all my years of coaching."
The run game welcomes back the tough and tenacious play of senior Alex Andrighetto (Portola Valley, CA), who suffered a season-ending injury just six games into the 2016 campaign. Despite the shortened season, he led the squad with 484 rushing yards and six touchdowns. In addition, an army of options raises the Bulldogs' abilities on the ground, with junior Josiah Alvira (Danville, CA), junior Conner Kennedy (Olympia, WA), junior Nathaniel Nguyen-Barkus (Novato, CA), senior Bryce Broadwell (Henderson, NV), and junior Matthew Hayashi (Hacienda Heights, CA) bringing outstanding skill and depth to the offense.
Although the defense returns fewer starters than the offense, Redlands looks to build on the success it gained from rotating a lot of players last year.
"We feel good about where we are right now. We're not real deep in experience but the defense is fast and has shown me some really positive things in preseason," added Maynard.
Redlands excitedly anticipates the contributions of the 2016 SCIAC Defensive Athlete of the Year in senior Mitch Shepherd (Seattle, WA), who compiled 62 total tackles last season, as highlighted by seven for a loss of 45 yards. He is joined by senior captain Dustin Nascimento (Aiea, HI) as an All-SCIAC safety who amassed a team-high 78 tackles on the season. Furthermore, the Bulldogs look to senior Curren Lapes (Ladera Ranch, CA), junior DJ Hollingshead (Citrus Heights, CA), junior Pete Riccolo (Morris, IL), and First-Team All-Conference selection senior Tristan Corwin (Wildomar, CA) to serve as stalwarts among the defense.
"They are all terrific players. They provide great leadership and we expect them to play well."
The Bulldogs bring a new level of success to the kicking game, beginning with the impressive leg of junior Nathan Hierlihy (Redondo Beach, CA), who was selected to the Fred Mitchell Award Preseason Watch List.
"We've done a lot of work on the kicking game and I like our chances," Maynard added.
Speedy senior Daniel Gonzales (Mentone, CA) looks to step up in the return game while bolstering the defense with additional strength and leadership as a captain. Kabeary mixes into the dynamic special teams as well.
Interestingly enough, one of Trinity's coaches, Brant McAdams, formerly worked with Maynard and now runs the Tigers' defense.
"Trinity is known to play a lot of defenses. We need to counterpunch and get into different plays."
However, Trinity boasts youthful exuberance rather than veteran experience, as most of the returning players had 40 or fewer tackles last season. Senior captain Mitchell Globe is one such exception, with 74 total hits and nine for a loss of 35 yards. Junior Robert Kuhne hopes to build off of his 56-tackle effort.
Offensively, the Tigers ran a two-quarterback system in 2016 but appear to have decided on senior Austin Grauer for the current campaign. He completed 58.9% of his passes for a team-high 968 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago. Junior Justin Ventura backs him after producing 322 yards on 29 completions.
Senior running back Evan McDowell works to return from injury after accumulating 507 yards in only five games played during the Tigers' 5-5 season.
Despite the .500 record, the Tigers' confidence is likely brimming with last season's 34-27 victory over Redlands serving as motivation.
Nonetheless, Maynard looks to his highly determined, persistent team to take care of business under the pressure and excitement of the early-season opener.
"We're a very steady team. It should be a good game."