Last we saw the Menlo-Atherton football team, it was trickling off the Terra Nova High School turf, heads held high after battling Serra in the Central Coast Section DI title game — a battle they lost.
Daily Journal sports file
Menlo-Atherton's Zack Moore is one of two players vying for the starting quarterback position with the season opener less than a week away.
So, coming off the heels of their latest CCS title game appearance, the Bears enter the 2012 season with outsiders expecting more of the same success. Fortunately for M-A, the system and foundation set by the last couple of years under head coach Sione Taufoou is strong.
"The key for us is to continue to get better, it’s about consistency and competing,” Taufoou said. "Our roots are still the same: pride, accountability, commitment. We’re still standing by those team values. Nothing changes here. We’re trying to develop that concept of, get better every day, get better every moment. It doesn’t matter if that’s on the football field or the classroom.”
But here’s the bad news: M-A enters the 2012 season, high outside expectations and all, with the task of replacing seven all-league players — including three Players of the Year. In a sense, Menlo-Atherton 2012 team is a victim of its 2011 success. Those seven players were all seniors. And M-A won’t be getting any sympathy points from the very tough Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division — nor do they want any.
"I don’t think you really can replace [those players],” Taufoou said. "New people have to step into their own roles. I think that passion, that drive, we’re looking for guys to step into those roles. We have a couple of guys that are doing a great job. Every team has their own identity, every individual has their own identity and everyone is going to find and needs to find their own way of doing things.
"The only expectation I really hold on these kids is PAC (pride, accountability, commitment). What other people see of our team, I’d like to say we’re a team that plays with a lot of effort. It doesn’t matter win or lose. I’d like to say we have a bunch of kids that show up, put on their blue collars and go to work. We’re humbled that everyone has great expectations of us but at the same time we just want to show up and play hard — play extremely hard.”
On offense, the Bears welcome a new offensive coordinator, who is implementing a couple new folds into one of last season’s most dynamic offensive attacks.
"The kids are still adjusting but in the long run we’re a team that tries to run the ball well and we’re going to continue to do that,” Taufoou said. "Offensively I don’t think much changes. We’re going to run the ball. We’re going to be physical at the point of attack.”
The departure of all-league quarterback Willy Fonua means either Zack Moore or Royce Branning take over the signal-calling duties for M-A. Both had their moments in the Bears’ scrimmage against Serra, Sequoia and Encinal. Whomever gets the nod will rely heavily on wide receiver Evan Perkins.
"I don’t know if we’re the biggest team up front,” Taufoou said of his offensive line. "I’m looking forward to them playing well. Other guys are starting to step up in their roles and it’s nice to see that people are starting to work together.”
On paper, the biggest hole for M-A will be on defense, where they’ll need to replace four all-leaguers including the PAL’s Defensive Player of the Year.
"We’re not there yet,” Taufoou said. "But we’re in the process of getting better. We’re trying to get better every day. We’re trying to compete. We want to put in a lot of effort.
M-A is expecting a big season from junior linebacker Brian Jaggers. "He’s the heart and soul of the defense,” Taufoou said. "He’s the one that lines us up and gets us ready to go.”
Another point of interest for M-A this season will be its special teams unit. That’s something you can’t say about most squads, but given the fact that the Bears graduated the best kicker and most dynamic returner in the league, special teams is definitely something to keep your eye on if you’re a Menlo-Atherton fan.
"It’s going to be a dog fight just like the last couple of years,” Taufoou said of the PAL Bay Division. "It’s a tough league and it’s swung a little to where, not we’re the young group. We’re going to have to battle every week — we really are.”
All the talk about "replacements” makes for great speculative chit-chat. But rest assured, Taufoou believes he has the kind of team he can challenge — a preseason schedule that includes road games against two reigning CCS champions in Los Gatos and St. Ignatius speaks volumes to the confidence the M-A head coach has with his team. If nothing else, the Bears will be battle-tested come their PAL opener against Aragon.
"This team needs to find its own way,” Taufoou said. "They need to find their own way of getting it done. They need to compete, get better every day. We love the guys that left, they left a great standard and they left some great expectations. Now it’s the willingness of this group to step up and fulfill those expectations.”
Key Players: Evan Perkins (sr., WR/DB); Nicky Gallagher (sr., LB/OL); Brian Jaggers (jr., LB); Tasi Teu (sr., RB/S); Zack Moore (sr., QB); Tom Bucka (sr., OL/DL).
2011 record: 4-1 PAL Bay, 9-4 overall.
2012 schedule (home games in CAPS): 8/31@ El Camino High School, 7 p.m.; 9/7 @ Los Gatos, 7:30 p.m.; 9/15 @ St. Ignatius, 2 p.m.; 9/21 SOUTH CITY, 3:15 p.m.; 10/5 ARAGON, 7 p.m.; 10/12 BURLINGAME, 7 p.m.; 10/19 @ Half Moon Bay, 3 p.m.; 10/27 @ Sacred Heart Prep, 1 p.m.; 11/2 TERRA NOVA, 7 p.m.; 11/9 WOODSIDE, 7 p.m.