Inland Empire teams garner national attention
Around this time of year, the Inland Empire's triple-digit temperatures start giving way to triple-digit yardage numbers. An area long known for it's prep football talent, this season promises to be no different as several programs throughout the region are garnering national recognition as the season is set to open. Here's a look at some of the Inland Empire's storylines.
The Usual Suspects
This season's favorites are familiar ones — defending Champion Vista Murrieta and Corona Centennial. It's no surprise here, as the two programs are perennial powerhouses that boast some of the best weapons in the state.
"To win an Inland CIF Championship it obviously goes through Corona Centennial and Vista Murrieta," said Rancho Cucamonga head coach Nick Baiz. "They're by far the class of the division."
Defending CIF Champion Vista Murrieta was left out of a state bowl game last season due to clerical issues, which makes for a hungry team. Currently ranked as high as 14th nationally, the Broncos return their top three offensive skill positions, including USC commit and National Player of the Year contender Su'a Cravens. The senior is versatile and skilled on both sides of the ball, but is most dangerous as a running back.
Corona Centennial will face a challenge in having to replace both the quarterback and running back from a high-powered offense that scored 45.1 points per game last season. However, the good news for the new faces in the pocket is that the guys they're lining up behind know what they're doing.
Cameron Hunt will lead a senior-laden offensive line, which has coach Matt Logan feeling more confident about bringing in new skill players.
"We're excited with guys like Cameron and two of his buddies up front coming back," Logan said. "They've got a lot of experience so we feel like the offensive line will be kind of the anchor of the group here."
The New Favorite
Also emerging as a big name contender in the Inland Division is Rancho Cucamonga. A veteran defense that held opponents to just over 16 points per game last season is led by two of the top defensive backs in the country, Chris Hawkins and Tahaan Goodman.
But while that duo is impressive, Baiz is quick to point out that the defense is not quite complete and others must play their roles as well.
"We're going to need guys to step up and help the defense out," Baiz said. "Having them does make us a little more flexible on play calling, but they're just a small piece of the puzzle. But obviously, it's an advantage having them both back there."
Baiz is also equally as insistent that for the Cougars to have success this season, it will ultimately be determined by whether or not they can get past Vista Murrieta and Centennial.
"In order to compete in the division you have to be able to beat those two teams," Baiz said. "We haven't done anything yet that those guys have done."
J.W. North might not be returning the core that led the Huskies to a 10-2 record last season, but what they lack in experience they make up for with athleticism.
"We're definitely in the rebuilding stage but I think that we have some athletes that will be able to accomplish a lot this year," said head coach Nick Paredes. "We do have some seniors that played last year that played well that will give us a head start. And I think that's one of the biggest strengths that we have."
Look for senior tight end Marcus Baugh to play a starring role this season. The 6-foot-4, 255-pound Baugh is deceptively speedy. Also a standout basketball player, his size and quickness make him difficult to cover and intimidating on the block. Paredes might have a team full of athletes, but Baugh stands above the rest.
However, there is one thing that Baugh isn't happy about this season.
"He's complaining about the long snapper role." Paredes said.
Redlands East Valley put up shocking numbers last season — shockingly low numbers, that is. The Wildcats allowed just 6.9 points per game as a rock solid defense paved the way for an 11-1 season and a third-straight Citrust Belt League title.
Kurt Bruich's philosophy of putting the team's strongest players on defense proved especially effective.
"We keep the game close that way," Bruich said.
East Valley is again is rolling out another loaded defense, this one led by senior defensive end Kylie Fitts, who will soon be playing in Troy.
"In the past we've had to hide four or five guys of the 11 with different schemes and stuff, (this year) we feel that this year there's just one or two that we're iffy about," Bruich said. "I think we're a force to be reckoned with."