It seems silly, in a way, to discuss the Newport Harbor High football team's new CIF Southern Section playoff division before the season even begins.
The Sailors spent two seasons in the Southwest Division, advancing to the quarterfinals in 2012 and the championship game last year. In May, the Sailors and the Sunset League were moved up to the West Valley Division, which features traditional powerhouses like Hart, Vista Murrieta and Mission Viejo.
The reason why the CIF division might be premature to talk about is that the Sailors will have to navigate through the always-tough Sunset League to advance to the postseason. Yet, that usually hasn't been a problem under Coach Jeff Brinkley, who is entering his 29th year.
In 22 of Brinkley's first 28 years, the Sailors have made the postseason. That includes each of the last five seasons. Last year, Newport Harbor finished tied for second in league before making its big playoff run, which included a 49-48 quarterfinal upset win over top-seeded La Habra at Davidson Field.
The league seems to get tougher and more balanced each year, with 2013 champion Edison setting the pace.
"When you go through our league and play the guys that we have to play in league, it will definitely help get us ready if we happen to make the playoffs," Brinkley said. "[League is] tough again. It's typical Sunset League. It's one of those leagues where everybody can beat everybody. Edison, until they get knocked off, you've got to pick them being up at the top."
There also are other scores to settle. Everyone will be looking forward to the Battle of the Bay game. Last year, Corona del Mar pulled away in the second half for a 34-14 win at Orange Coast College, its first Battle of the Bay win in seven years. This year, the game is back at Davidson, on Sept. 19.
One player who certainly has that date circled on the proverbial calendar is Newport Harbor senior receiver/linebacker Keaton Cablay.
"I think last year we went in way too cocky, but this year I'm trying to keep this team composed," Cablay said. "I really want to win this year, senior year, and it's at our home field too. We're definitely fired up. It hurts to see that bell over [at CdM]."
Here is a position-by-position look at the Sailors, who have a home scrimmage against Bell Gardens on Friday and open the regular season at home against Los Angeles Hamilton on Sept. 5.
Quarterback: Senior Cole Norris, who recently committed to Northern Arizona, returns for his third year starting under center.
Norris, 6-foot, 193 pounds, had a big year last year. He passed for 2,959 yards and a school-record 27 touchdowns, narrowly missing the Sailors' single-season passing yardage mark held by Shane Foley. Norris, though, is just 943 yards away from breaking Foley's career passing mark of 5,364 yards.
Brinkley said Norris, the Sunset League Co-Offensive Back of the Year and Daily Pilot Newport-Mesa Dream Team Offensive Player of the Year in 2013, is probably the best in terms of throwing the football that he's had in his tenure at Newport Harbor.
"He's understanding the system and what we're trying to get accomplished," Brinkley said. "We know he can physically make plays, and the mental end is where he's starting to really make some real progress. If he was 6-4 or 6-5, he'd be recruited by everybody. Every Pac-12 school would be after him."
Newport junior Dalton Rosene and sophomore Michael Bonds are in a battle for the backup spot.
Running backs: Senior tailback Chance Siemonsma (6-0, 173) returns after producing 1,073 yards rushing and eight touchdowns last year. Brinkley said the first-team All-Sunset League selection has gotten bigger and a little bit more physical.
Backing up Siemonsma are junior Max Durante (6-0, 203) and senior Riley Gaddis (6-1, 204).
Trevor Shaw, a senior, is a returning starter at fullback. Shaw (5-10, 206) was a second-team all-league choice last year.
Receivers: Cablay, who is the top returning receiver, and will have to step up after Brinkley said he was a third or fourth option last year. But he still caught 16 passes, and Brinkley said he had an excellent summer.
The Sailors lost their top two starters at the position, each of whom topped 1,000 yards. Graduate Quest Truxton was the Sunset League Offensive Player of the Year and set program records in receptions (83), receiving yards (1,325) and receiving touchdowns (17). Another graduate, Cory Stowell, shared the catches record with 83 of his own, adding 1,074 yards and nine touchdowns.
"[Cablay] caught as many passes this summer as Truxton did the summer before," Brinkley said. "If that's any indication, he should do a really good job for us catching the ball."
Booker Hoey, a senior who transferred to Newport Harbor from South Carolina prior to last year and got sparse playing time, also projects as a starting receiver. Brinkley called Hoey inexperienced, but very athletic.
Gaddis is a hybrid type of player who will also catch the ball plenty out of the backfield, while junior Jack Rapillo and senior Ben Bockrath are also in the mix. Rapillo played on the junior varsity last year, while Bockrath is a basketball player who previously played freshman football three years ago for the Sailors.
Tight end: Brett Beaudette (6-0, 195), a senior, moves from backup to starter this year. The Sailors often run double-tight formations in their pro-style offense, and on the other side Brinkley said they are looking at junior Kobe Benter (6-4, 214), sophomore Alex Michaelsen (6-0, 182) and sophomore Joseph Bonilla (6-2, 225). Bonilla is a recent transfer from Righetti High in Santa Maria.
Offensive line: This is an area of concern for Brinkley, as it is largely inexperienced. Ramsey Hufford, last year's Newport-Mesa Dream Team Lineman of the Year, is now at UC Davis.
The left side of the line is strong though, led by junior returning starter Joey Stukonis (6-2, 270) at left tackle. Senior left guard Josh Perez (5-9, 262) also started several games last year, as did junior center Elliot Frye (6-2, 199), including the Southwest Division championship game against Huntington Beach.
Junior Blake Elbattar (6-0, 188), who moved from tight end, is in the mix at right guard. So are sophomore Mike Jarboe (6-2, 277) and junior Arthur Guillen (5-7, 193).
The right tackle could be junior Max Spruill or Jarboe.
Defensive line: Beaudette is a returning starter at end, where he earned first-team all-league honors while registering 62 tackles and a team-best eight sacks. Junior Caleb O'Neal was slotted for the other end spot, but he suffered an off-season ankle injury playing basketball, and Brinkley is unsure if he will play this season. If not, Durante could play step in.
Stukonis returns at tackle, and the noseguard could be a mix of guys like Spruill, Jarboe and senior Taylor Guerrero (6-0, 302).
Another junior who was a baseball player and has not played football, Griffin Cribbs (5-11, 253), also has shown promise.
"Half of the defensive line is going to be inexperienced," Brinkley said. "We're even thinking of moving Trevor Shaw down. Both [Shaw and Durante] are linebackers that are athletic enough to create some problems as defensive linemen. We're in the experimental phase of finding out what the best combination is."
Linebackers: Gaddis, a starting middle linebacker for two years, has now moved to the outside, a more natural position, Brinkley said. Gaddis is a leader on defense after making an area-best 152 tackles last year.
The middle linebacker is a sophomore, Cole Smith (5-8, 204), with Cablay, another returning starter, as the other outside 'backer. Durante is also in the mix, and Brinkley said another sophomore, Gage Roberson (5-11, 178), has looked good in the spring and summer.
Brinkley said that the linebackers are probably the strongest part of the defense.
Secondary: Hoey, who has had a strong summer and can make big plays, starts at one cornerback. Rapillo is the other cornerback.
Siemonsma is a returning starter at free safety, and Rosene, an undersized linebacker last year, is the starting strong safety, Brinkley said.
Junior cornerback Reed Rutter and senior safety Darren Stevenson should also see playing time, Brinkley said.
Special teams: Senior Michael Schultz, a Dream Team selection last year after converting five of seven field-goal tries and 47 of 50 conversion tries, returns at kicker and punter. He averaged 36.3 yards per punt.
"He can punt the heck out of the ball," Brinkley said. "We beat Notre Dame in the playoffs [7-3, in 2007] when we had Dillan Freiberg [at punter]. The whole key to that night was that he just kept punting them deep. If you've got a good punter, it's a big help."
Gaddis and Hoey (kickoffs) and Rapillo (punts) are return men, while Cole Smith is the long snapper.