Editor’s note: Herald sportswriter John Devine is spending much of this month visiting Monterey County high schools to get a sneak peek of their football teams. This and other previews are featured at montereyherald.com/sports/high-school-sports/.
SALINAS — Without a doubt, there was no better feel-good story last fall in high school football than at North Salinas.
A winless 2019 season was followed by the pandemic, crippling the rebuilding plan that head coach Ben Ceralde was implementing both physically and mentally.
Falling by 34 points to open last season didn’t exactly foster optimism. Yet, that loss seemed to unite a group of players eager to shed the program’s losing ways.
“It was the response after that loss that I remember,” Ceralde said. “Kids were disappointed and frustrated. There was a competitive edge. They had just as much fight as we did as coaches.”
Ceralde didn’t shy away from the expectations he had. Preaching pride and working as one, the Vikings went 4-1 down the stretch to get into the postseason for the first time since 2015.
“It’s the small wins on the field that lead to big wins,” Ceralde said. “The more positives, the better the outlook. These kids had never been in a playoff position. We enjoyed the moment.”
As gratifying as the Vikings’ run was in Ceralde’s fourth season — which included a postseason win, it also served as a backdrop coming this season. The pride in the program is back, as the bar has been raised.
There was a lot of energy in the air at a recent practice, with pads popping and players engaged. The numbers at North Salinas are also up with over 100 players in the program.
“Last year’s group turned the direction of the program around,” Ceralde said. “Those kids set the pathway for those that are back of what is expected and what needs to be done.”
Granted some valuable leaders have graduated. But the core that has returned is anxious to run it back — with the thought of taking an extra step forward in the postseason.
“There is a little bit of swagger out there,” Ceralde said. “We’re pretty young. The kids that got a taste of it last year also got valuable experience. It’s more of a retooling process this year.”
North Salinas is coming off its first postseason appearance in six years pic.twitter.com/6wUhyic0i1
— John Devine (@JohnJDevine) August 11, 2022
Granted, nothing came easy for the Vikings last year, who were forced to play two games down the stretch – five days apart because of COVID-19 protocols — winning both.
North Salinas found itself playing one game on Monday afternoon, followed by a Saturday game for a berth in the postseason at 10 a.m., in which officials forced them to change uniforms during warmups with a penalty tacked on, citing they were not part of the school colors.
While the Vikings are in a retool mood at the skilled positions, Ceralde has some depth in the trenches with the return of All-County lineman Jesus DeAlfaro.
The senior protected the blind side of his quarterback last fall while opening holes that a truck could get through.
His presence in the trenches, along with the return of Andrew Jimenez, will give the offense an opportunity to move the ball.
“It’s a good starting point,” Ceralde said. “We want to move up those expectations. We’re not as big as last year. But you can see the cohesiveness evolving, which is something you can’t teach.”
With the ground game having lost its top three rushers, Sean Nyman will be asked to fill a void, having shown promise last year at the lower levels.
Nyman is elusive with deceptive speed. He hits holes fast and reads and reacts well, relying on his instincts and front five to find a seam.
“This group has a lot of energy,” Ceralde said. “It’s probably the most athletic group of kids I have had. The experience is what is holding us back right now.”
It will be trial by fire in the preseason for North Salinas, which has lined up games against Menlo, Jefferson, Gilroy and Gabilan Division power Aptos.
“It will prepare us for our league,” Ceralde said.
Nyman could also line up in the slot when North Salinas goes to multiple formations with its passing game, along with Daniel Macias, who averaged nearly 20 yards a catch last year.
“We need to build off of last year’s energy,” said Macias, who doubles as a defensive back. “My role is to build up my teammates. We need to communicate better and talk more. It will come.”
What North Salinas is still searching for is a starting quarterback. It’s possible that Ceralde will rotate two players behind center — at least early in the season.
“One can sling it and has a nice touch,” Ceralde said. “The other kid has wheels. We will see how each develops into the system and matures.”
You could see two quarterbacks throughout non league play for North Salinas pic.twitter.com/KcedCr53em
— John Devine (@JohnJDevine) August 11, 2022
Having Jimenez back in the trenches on the defensive line is huge for North Salinas, as he provides a pass rush, along with Javier Moran, bolstering the front seven.
Last year, Moran came up big in North Salinas’ playoff win over San Mateo, when he picked up a fumble and bolted 25 yards for a touchdown in a 28-21 win.
“We had a great summer of workouts in terms of attitude,” Ceralde said. “The belief is we’ve done it before, we can do it again. What we cannot expect is to ride the wave from last year.”
Contributed by local news sources