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 will also be featured at montereyherald.com/sports/high-school-sports/
KING CITY – Heartbroken couldn’t begin to describe how King City High’s football players felt at the end of last season.
The Mustangs got off to their best start in the program’s illustrious 90-plus-year history, winning their first six games. But a 2-point loss in their regular-season finale eliminated them from the playoffs, extending their playoff drought to 15 years.
Head coach Mac Villanueva questioned his leadership qualities, even suggesting someone else should take the reins.
It wasn’t until a handful of his coaching peers reached out and reminded him that not only had it been one of the greatest seasons at King City — the Mustangs finished 7-2, tied for second in the Cypress Division – but that he was the right man for that program.
“The defeat got the better of me,” Villanueva said. “At that moment, it stung so bad. What was overwhelming was the amount of support I received — telling me to snap out of it.”
A decade-long tenure as the Mustangs’ head coach continues for the former quarterback, with a new outlook – yet the same beliefs in what he’s built over the years.
“I needed to remind myself that coaching is also about what I can do for these kids,” Villanueva said. “If I can have a positive influence or affect a kid’s life, that’s worth more than any win.”
Not that it softens the blow of missing the postseason after a 27-25 loss at Pacific Grove in the Mustangs’ season finale.
Although King City’s 7-2 record was impressive, the Central Coast Section selects playoff teams based on a points system that rewards strength of schedule. Since King City was playing in the Cypress Division, the second lowest tier of the Pacific Coast Athletic League, anything short of a division title made it extra challenging to earn a spot in the playoffs.
“I still think about it,” Villanueva said. “A lot of our kids haven’t forgotten about it. If it serves a purpose or provides motivation for them that we came up two points short, that’s a good thing.”
Villanueva had watched tape of the game countless times before putting it in storage, turning his focus toward the future.
The Mustangs did not open the year with six straight wins before falling to Cypress Division champion Scotts Valley by accident.
King City’s defense had produced four shutouts, while its offense – even with its slow starts – rolled in the fourth quarter, outscoring opponents 108-20 during that run.
“I see a bunch of positives,” Villanueva said. “We fell short of the ultimate goal. But those that are back know what it takes. Now let’s push it a little further to get to that next level.”
No question there were enough highlights last year to build toward this fall, starting with the return of quarterback Jjey Martinez.
The left-handed multi-sport athlete showed moments of brilliance, throwing for nearly 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns while rushing for six more touchdowns.
“He was making throws this summer that he couldn’t make last year,” Villanueva said. “He can throw the ball with more authority with accuracy. He’s noticeably stronger and committed.”
Martinez, who grew an inch and added 20 pounds of muscle to his frame, looked explosive in a recent practice when faking a pitch and taking off downfield.
“For me, it’s confidence,” Martinez said. “There were certain throws that I struggled to make last year. I just have a better grasp of the offense.”
Cutting down on his turnovers will be an expectation moving forward as Martinez will likely put the ball in the air more with the return of receiver Jace Espino.
Lining up in the slot, Espino has that winning pedigree, having been a part of King City’s NorCal championship soccer team.
The team’s kicker, Espino seldom comes off the field, having intercepted a pair of passes for that stingy Mustangs’ defense last fall.
While Martinez is a threat with his legs and speed as well, it will be a committee approach in the backfield with Chris Gaytan and Isaac Benavidez pushing for carries.
“In close games, you’d like to be able to run the ball to eat the clock,” Villanueva said. “You want to be balanced. Jjey’s opportunities will figure in that as well. We do a lot of zone-read.”
Protecting Martinez is critical, and it does not hurt having returning all-league lineman Angel Arroyo protecting his blind side and creating holes for the ground game along with Mason Hill.
Three-year starter Aiden Caulk, who missed half the season last year with a broken ankle, fills a gap on defense and special teams, having blocked a punt and returning it for a touchdown last year.
“Last year’s ending stuck with me for a while,” said Martinez. “But it’s time to move forward. We had a good summer.”
Better starts will be critical for King City, which scored just 21 points in the first quarter and trailed in its last three games at the half.
What likely won’t change is the numbers in the program. While 65 signed up, the off-season program saw that number cut nearly in half as Villanueva has 34 players filling out his varsity roster this fall
“Character is the strength of this team,” Villanueva said. “We teach multiple positions. It’s not just about football. It’s about being accountable. We have a lot of blue-collar kids.”
Contributed by local news sources