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Junior College Football Preview: Orange Coast looks to turn things around

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Tackle Riden Leong, seen practicing at Orange Coast College on Friday, has four NCAA Division I scholarship offers.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Joel “Bubba” Gonzalez knows what Orange Coast College football can be, sees a path toward success and better, and is surrounding himself with others who believe and are ready to work hard to get there. What he doesn’t know is what that will mean for his 2019 team.

The Pirates come off a 1-9 campaign, their worst record since 1996, but return vital players in several positions, bring in a few talented difference-makers, and have taken the approach that things can’t get worse, so let’s make them better.

Gonzalez, who was fully handed the reins in the spring after serving as interim head coach last season, has expanded his staff from seven to 11 coaches, emphasized getting the details right, and created an environment that his players are relishing. The work began last year.

“It was tough going 1-9, but there were things I thought were positives for our program,” said Gonzalez, the Pirates’ defensive line coach in 2016-17. “A lot of it had to do with the attitude the kids had. They never gave up, they worked their butts off, they did everything we asked them to do.”

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Now he’s got a group that’s stronger mentally and physically, tougher, more talented, and heading into the season with more confidence than an OCC team has possessed since last qualifying for a bowl game four years ago.

The search for the next head coach of the Orange Coast College football program ended right where it began.

“We’ve definitely got a lot of guys buying into the program and buying into this new culture of changing the narrative of a 1-9 program and flip-flopping it to ... 10-0,” said receiver Reese Perez, a former Corona del Mar High standout who sat out last season after transferring from Santa Barbara City College. “We’ve got a lot of dudes coming in hungry and a lot of young guys that are ready to carry the load.”

A 10-0 campaign might be beyond reach, but OCC once was among the mightiest teams in the state, in the nation, and Gonzalez’s aim is to climb back to those heights. It’ll take time. Now is for building an infrastructure to do so.

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“That’s the thing,” said linebacker Tavita Crisp, a former Edison High standout. “Create a culture, a foundation, so that we can get better recruits. Just build a solid foundation [based upon] what being a Pirate is really all about.”

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Coach Joel “Bubba” Gonzalez addresses the team after practice at Orange Coast College on Friday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

For now, a 6-4 season or better is the wish — Gonzalez has made a bowl appearance this year’s promised land — and the Pirates believe that’s within reach.

“I’ve been asking myself [what we’re going to be like] a lot lately,” said Gonzalez, whose team opens the season at Ventura on Saturday at 6 p.m. “I think we’re tough enough to match the level of play we’re going to go up against. Last year we were up and down, but this year I think we have the mental toughness and the ability to compete with every team we’re going to play.

“I don’t really know what to expect, to tell you the truth. Obviously, I want to win every game. But as long as the kids show up everyday ready to work, approach every day and every practice with the mentality that they’re going to get better — even if it’s just a little but from the day before — then, to me, those things are going to add up to bigger things later on.”

OCC will be a running team that throws the ball out a variety of formations and schemes, and the key skill people will mostly be new. All-National Southern League running back Ahmad Lewis took a scholarship at South Dakota School of Mines, and top receiver Dylan Laurent was dismissed from the team.

The offense will be led by Adam Carr, a 6-foot-4 pro-style quarterback arriving from seasons at Golden West, the University of Wyoming and, last year, Palomar in San Marcos. Gonzalez loves his mechanics, and he’s got some good receivers to throw to. Sebastian Monge and fellow Mater Dei alum Troy Conway are back, and the 5-foot-10 Perez adds an additional dimension.

“Reese is fast, has great hands, runs great routes, and he’s tough,” Gonzalez said. “If there were a few more inches on him, he’s the kind of guy people are looking for in the NFL.”

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Running back David Hernandez, who grayshirted last year, hasn’t much size — just 5-6, 175 — but he’s mobile and “super tough, Gonzalez says. Perez calls him a “bulldog.” In front of him is an experienced line, with returning tackles Riden Leong, who has four NCAA Division I scholarship offers, and Alex Wyant, plus former Newport Harbor standout John Lamas, who is being converted from center to guard. Among the more impressive newcomers on the line are Elijah Fatu.

The Pirates are switching from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3, and the team’s strength, Gonzalez says, are a deep and experienced linebacker corps, featuring returning starters Crisp, Zeke Alleman, and Chris Castillo. Crisp and Alleman are leaders on the defense, along with lineman Adrian Rosales and cornerback Kyrie Adams, a grayshirt from Maryland.

The defensive line has several promising freshmen, including versatile Grant Conaway (Edison), tackle Melvin Bowen (Edison), and nose guard Nick Greco (Mater Dei). The secondary has experience: cornerback Morice Norris and safety Isaac Soto are returning starters.

“Coming off a 1-9 season, there’s not too much confidence to build off of,” Crisp said. “But every year is a new year, and we’re coming in with a new attitude, like we’re not going to be pushed around. We just have to prove through every single game that we can hang.”

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Adam Carr, pictured during a practice at Orange Coast College on Friday, is a 6-foot-4 pro-style quarterback.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

ORANGE COAST COLLEGE PIRATES

Division: National

Conference: National Southern League

Coach: Joel “Bubba” Gonzalez (second year)

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Staff: J.T. Niumata (offensive coordinator), Twin Fernandes (defensive coordinator), Darrell Pasquale (special teams coordinator), Dennis Justiniani (linebackers), Max Matsuhara (tight ends), Vinni Mesa (running backs), Bill Norton (quarterbacks), Joe Pirooz (defensive line), Doug Smith (offensive line), Armand Alonzo (offensive line assistant), Junior Tagaloa (wide receivers)

2018 season: 1-9 overall, 0-5 in the National Southern League (sixth place)

Offensive scheme: Multiple sets

Defensive scheme: 4-3

Returning offensive starters: Seven

Returning defensive starters: Six

Returning with honors: None

SCHEDULE

September

7 — at Ventura, 6 p.m.

14 — vs. East Los Angeles, 6 p.m.

21 — vs. Los Angeles Southwest, 6 p.m.

28 — at El Camino, 1 p.m.

October

5 — vs. Bakersfield, 6 p.m.

12 — Bye

19 — at Golden West*, 1 p.m.

26 — vs. Saddleback*, 6 p.m.

November

2 — vs. Grossmont*, 6 p.m.

9 — at Riverside City*, 6 p.m.

16 — at Southwestern*, 6 p.m.

*denotes conference game

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