By Ray Hamill … St. Bernard’s makes the move up to the Big 4 for 2018, and it’s a challenge head coach Matt Tomlin and his players will be facing head on.
“We look young, but we have a lot of talent,” Tomlin said. “I think we have a chance to be a good team, but we’re not starting where we were the last few years.”
The Crusaders will make the move up to the bigger schools league after dominating the Little 4 in recent years, winning the past four titles with a combined record of 22-0.
The problem for the Crusaders, however, is numbers, and matching up consistently with dominating programs like Eureka and Fortuna, who feature rosters twice the size as that of St. Bernard’s.
“I’m okay with it,” Tomlin said of the move. “I’ve made no secret of it, nobody wanted us up there when we were loaded with talent the past three years, but at the same time, my guys are going to work hard and we’ll be ready to go and make no excuses.”
Last season, the Crusaders clinched a fifth straight Little 4 and came within inches of defeating Fortuna in the NCS Division IV semifinal, giving the eventual state champions their toughest game on a stellar 6-0 playoff run.
The Crusaders have graduated a lot of talented starters from that squad, but do return a core group of leaders, including center/nose guard Conor Chase.
Chase, who is 6-2, 320 pounds, was a starter as a 14-year-old freshman on the Crusaders’ state championship team in 2015 and has been a dominating presence ever since.
He is, in Tomlin’s words, the undoubted MVP of the team.
Alongside him in the trenches, the Crusaders have some good size along the offensive line, including tackles A.J. Jager and Bowdy Dunn, and guards Lucindo Gable and Isaac Beach.
Senior receiver Luke Fairfield is expected to provide plenty of leadership on offense and is one of four co-captains on the roster, along with Chase, QB/LB Logan Simoni and WR/DB Sebastian Taylor.
Junior wide receiver and safety Lane Thrap is another player Tomlin and his staff will look to to provide leadership on a young squad.
In the backfield, 6-1, 215-pound junior Talimaivao Fonoti is a big strong running back expected to carry the load.
At quarterback, junior Will Omey has won the starting job this preseason, stepping into the role after projected starter Bode Joyner broke his non-throwing arm while playing American Legion baseball during the summer.
“I like that he’s a dual threat,” Tomlin said of Omey, adding that he has earned the job.
Joyner is expected back for the second half of the season, but it remains to be seen what role he will play.
On defense, junior Justin Hagler will be looked to for leadership in his second season as a starter.
“It seems to be a close group, and they’re working well together,” Tomlin said of his 19-man varsity roster, which is about half the size of that of the Crusaders’ three league opponents. “Our senior leadership is up to the challenge of the bigger schools.”
A tough schedule includes a trip to Marin Catholic on Sept. 22, as well as all three league opponents, including the defending state champions.
“We schedule tough. We always have,” Tomlin said. “We’ll play anybody who calls us, and Marin Catholic called.”
One big change in the coaching staff this season sees Tomlin giving up the defensive play calling duties for the first time in his six-year tenure as head coach.
Second-year assistant coach Richard Stevenson, who oversaw the linebackers in 2017, takes over as defensive coordinator.
The Crusaders will not field a JV team this fall due to lack of numbers, with the six younger players moving up to the varsity roster, although none of them are expected to see much action.
The Crusaders kick off the season at home to El Molino on Saturday at 2 p.m.
Aug. 18 El Molino 2 p.m.
Aug. 25 McKinleyville 1 p.m.
Aug. 31 at Arcata 7 p.m.
Sept. 8 Hoopa Valley 1 p.m.
Sept. 15 Ferndale 1 p.m.
Sept. 22 at Marin Catholic 2 p.m.
Sept. 28 at Tri-Cities Prep 6 p.m.
Oct. 12 at Eureka 7 p.m.
Oct. 19 at Fortuna 7 p.m.
Oct. 27 Del Norte 1 p.m.