Experienced line helps set the tone for the Crusaders

File photo – Wyatt Simoni is expected to play a key role for the Crusaders at running back and defensive end.

By Ray Hamill — This year the Crusaders could be ready to challenge for a first Big 4 title since moving up to the larger schools conference five years ago.

At the very least, head coach Matt Tomlin should have the most experienced line in the H-DNL on both sides of the ball, and that, coupled with some very talented young skill position players, could be enough to see them end Del Norte’s recent domination of the Big 4.

The Crusaders will start five seniors along the defensive line and three on the offensive line, and Tomlin describes the units as the strength of the team heading into the new season.

“I’m excited about the senior leadership on our team,” Tomlin said. “This is probably the first year (for me) where going into the season the best part of our team is the line.”

Three of the four team captains will anchor both lines, including center/defensive end Lane Ford, right tackle/nose guard Jonathan Cortez and left tackle/defensive end Kyler Smith.

And all of them impressed at this past weekend’s scrimmage in Ferndale, setting the early tone for the season.

“I thought we looked very good on the offensive and defensive line,” Tomlin said. “We’re very experienced on the line. We’re very big and physical up front.”

Perhaps even more impressive was the play of running back/defensive end Wyatt Simoni, another team captain who looks set to pick up right where he left off as a junior in 2022 and should be one of the best players in the entire H-DNL this fall.

“Those four have been really leading the team in the weight room,” the head coach said of the captains. “I’m very happy with the leadership they’ve brought so far.”

St. Bernard’s, which has more than 200 students enrolled in the high school this year, has an impressive 48 players playing football, which will allow the Crusaders to comfortably field varsity and JV teams.

Many of the younger players will play varsity, including freshman Trenton Hagler, who will see time at quarterback this weekend along with returning sophomore Luke Brunton.

Brunton, who played with the JVs a year ago, will play the first and third quarters against Hoopa, while Hagler will play the second and fourth quarters.

“Right now it’s even,” Tomlin said of the battle for the starting spot. “They’re both doing a good job.”

Trenten’s older brother Ethan Hagler, a junior, is back with the team and expected to play a big role at linebacker and on the offensive line, while St Mary’s junior transfer Luis Malko-Allen will back up Simoni at running back and also play linebacker.

The most talented unit on the team could be the receiving corps, although the unit is very young, with a top five that includes freshman Garret Shanahan, sophomores Isaiah Wolfe, Michael Manzi and Tyler Hinrichs and junior Kris Tinkham.

“They’re young, but they’re super, super talented,” Tomlin said. “As good a group of receivers as I’ve ever had. But there’s going to be some growing pains with them.”

The Crusaders were 6-6 last year, including a 2-1 mark in league and 1-1 in the playoffs.

They open the new season at home against Hoopa on Saturday afternoon after the game was switched from Hoopa because of the wildfires in the area.

Last year, the two teams played out an exciting 26-25 contest, which the Crusaders edged.

“Hoopa is competitive,” Tomlin said. “We played a good one-point game with them last year. We respect (head coach Floyd) Cowboy (Billings) and his players, and we’re looking forward to a competitive game.”

The JVs kick off at 1 p.m., followed by the varsity at 3:30 p.m.

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