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Junior College Football Preview: Golden West seeks second straight bowl appearance

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Quarterback Nathaniel Espinoza throws during Golden West College’s practice on Friday in Huntington Beach.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Coach Nick Mitchell is trying to figure out what kind of football team he’ll have this season at Golden West College, what its strengths and characteristics will be, and what it is that will determine how high it can climb.

The Rustlers will be strong defensively, as always, but there’s a new quarterback and new ballcarriers, and until he sees them against a real opponent, he can’t be entirely sure of what he’s got.

Confidence won’t be a problem. There’s belief among his players that this year is going to be special, that Golden West will silence its doubters — those who think such a small school could never stand toe-to-toe with SoCal’s giants — win the National Southern League and look to do something in the state playoffs.

It’s a program that’s on the rise, they say, one looking to get back to where the Rustlers were half a decade ago, when they averaged eight wins over three seasons, reaching bowl games in each campaign. They made another bowl appearance last year, after missing out the two previous seasons, and now they’re looking for something more.

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“I think we should come out, and we should definitely win conference,” all-conference safety Austin Kramer said. “We should shock some teams that think that we’re the underdog.”

Mitchell, in his 14th season as head coach, is more realistic, and says “we’re not going to be able to compete man-to-man” with Riverside City College, averaging nearly 10 wins and just two losses the past seven years and looking to dominate again after a 5-0 run in its first NSL campaign. Saddleback and Southwestern also figure to be strong. Golden West must be “consistent every week” to have a shot.

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Golden West College defensive tackle V.J. Malo, center, practices on Friday in Huntington Beach.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

He’s got talent, for sure. The Rustlers return some major contributors — led by all-state defensive tackle V.J. Malo, all-conference offensive lineman Spencer Blake and safety Austin Kramer, plus wide receiver David Atencio, a former Edison star who led the team with 50 receptions last year — and have some outstanding newcomers, including two four-year bounce-back running backs.

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Corona del Mar grad Nathaniel Espinoza, who threw for 429 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 128 yards as backup quarterback last year, will run the offense, which Mitchell hopes will have better balance, with a stronger running game to bolster a strong passing game.

“We’ve got some veterans at wide receiver, and Espinoza gives us a veteran presence at quarterback, as well,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got new running backs but we think we’ll have a chance to run the ball consistently this year.”

Espinoza, he says, is just 5-foot-11 but has “a really strong arm, a good presence back there, and he’s got good feet. He can run. He’s a smart kid, a good leader, and he knows the offense.” Atencio, a superb route-runner whose “hand-eye coordination and body control is second to none,” is the top target, and the running game will be led by Chaunce Lewis, the top returning back, and newcomers Alex Pourdanesh, a CdM grad arriving from the University of Nevada, and Mater Dei alum Ralph Jones, who was at the University of San Diego.

Blake, a 6-3, 287-pounder out of Newport Harbor, was a stud tackle last year, and he’ll see some reps there this season, Mitchell says, but is being converted to center.

Malo, from Seattle, is the big name on defense — Mitchell calls him “such a stud,” and Kramer says he’s “a savage” — and leads a strong line featuring Bellflower St. John Bosco product Jalen Harrington and Steven Cruz, from Santa Ana.

“Normally, our defensive line is really good,” Mitchell said. “We hang our hats on them. As the D-line goes, the rest of our defense goes.”

Newcomer Sele Pemasa, from St. John Bosco, could be a star at linebacker, and Kramer and fellow safety Cobie Sauvau are the leaders in the secondary.

“Defensively, people know us as hitters,” Kramer said. “We come out, we fly around, we get to the ball, we attack weaknesses. Before you play us, you’re thinking, ‘OK, they’re going to be soft.’ They come in with this mentality that because we’re a smaller school, we can’t compete. When they leave, they’re like, ‘Damn, we just got hit.’”

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Getting to a bowl game last year — the Rustlers lost at Cerritos in the SoCal Bowl — was a big deal, and they’re seeking their sixth bid in nine years.

“We lost a lot of close games, and we should have done a little better, but it was good to get to a bowl game,” Atencio said. “I think we have a really good team this year. We should be on another level.”

Kramer, an Oregonian who redshirted his first year, says Golden West’s culture is growing stronger with each season.

“We’ve definitely took a step forward,” he said. “Seeing how our team has evolved from ‘me’ guys to, like, teammates, that was the biggest difference. Now we’re coming this year with more experience, everyone’s working together, we’ve put in a lot more time. Everyone’s just a lot more excited this season. I think that that’s the next step.”

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Golden West College coach Nick Mitchell, pictured instructing his players on Friday in Huntington Beach, is in his 14th year in charge of the Rustlers.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

GOLDEN WEST COLLEGE RUSTLERS

Division: National

Conference: National Southern League

Coach: Nick Mitchell (14th year)

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Staff: Sean Corcoran (assistant head coach/special teams coordinator/linebackers), John Shipp (offensive coordinator/quarterbacks), Ramsey Fiapii (defensive line), George Pascoe (director of football operations/offensive line), Savea Harrington (defensive line), Ted McMillan (tight ends), Pete Moye (wide receivers), Chris Redfern (linebackers/strength and conditioning), Steven Santana (running backs), Dominic Sesay (defensive backs), Josh Smith (wide receivers/strength and conditioning)

2018 season: 6-5 overall, 3-2 in the National Southern League (third place), lost to Cerritos 21-9 in SoCal Bowl.

Offensive scheme: Multiple zone run-based

Defensive scheme: 4-2/3-2 multiple

Returning offensive starters: Five

Returning defensive starters: Three

Returning with honors: DL V.J. Malo, OL Spencer Blake, S Austin Kramer

SCHEDULE

September

7 — vs. Fullerton at Yorba Linda High, noon

14 — at San Diego Mesa, 1 p.m.

21 — at West Los Angeles, 1 p.m.

28 — at Bakersfield, 6 p.m.

October

5 — vs. College of the Canyons, 1 p.m.

12 — Bye

19 — vs. Orange Coast*, 1 p.m.

26 — at Riverside City*, 6 p.m.

November

2 — vs. Saddleback* at Mission Viejo High, 6 p.m.

9 — vs. Southwestern*, 1 p.m.

16 — vs. Grossmont*, 1 p.m.

*denotes conference game

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