Newport Harbor High’s football team is off to a 3-0 start for the first time in nearly a decade, and the Sailors believe that they are capable of, well, just about anything. That includes making a run for the Sunset League spoils after going winless last year in league play.
Chad Koste has a lot to do with Newport Harbor’s fine play and that sense of belief within the program. He’s the centerpiece of a superb linebacking corps that sets the tone for a defensive unit that returned seven starters from a team that went 3-6-1 overall a year ago.
The senior middle linebacker, a two-time All-Sunset League selection, was at his best in last week’s 24-14 come-from-behind triumph at Aliso Niguel — he made 13 tackles, forced and collected a fumble, and corralled standout Wolverines quarterback Kyle Kyckelhahn.
He’s one of the Sailors’ true leaders, on and off the field.
“Chad, he’s just an amazing kid,” second-year head coach Peter Lofthouse said. “Not just a great football player, but he’s also terrific in the classroom. He’s without a doubt one of the most important players on our team, with his leadership, his athleticism, his level of play and the confidence he plays with.
“His personality is completely ‘lead by example.’ He works hard in the weight room, works hard on the field, works hard in the classroom. That’s just his personality at all times, so a lot of our kids, we try to say, ‘Hey, follow what Chad does. See what he does and try to repeat those actions to the best of your ability.’”
Koste’s vision and football IQ, “raw athleticism” and nose for the ball have been huge for Newport Harbor, 3-0 for the first time since 2010, as it has toppled Woodbridge, Aptos and Aliso Niguel, all road games. That’s as many wins as all of last year and more than the season before, when they went 2-8.
“A lot of us have been playing together since Pop Warner,” said Koste, who also had 13 tackles and forced two turnovers in the 31-28 win over Aptos. “We’ve always kind of believed that if we kept on working and kept believing in ourselves, by the time of our senior season we’d have something, and it seems we do. Obviously, it’s a little surprising, because we’ve had a couple of rough years, but we always knew we had the talent and the capabilities [to win]. That’s what’s happening right now.”
The Sailors, who are home on Sept. 19 against Santa Monica after a bye this week, jumped to No. 2 in the CIF Southern Section Division 9 rankings after rallying from a 14-3 halftime deficit at Aliso Niguel. Koste made big plays, but most important, Lofthouse said, was his pursuit work to keep Kyckelhahn from breaking any big plays a week after throwing for 418 yards, five touchdowns and rushing for 70 yards in a one-point win over Sunny Hills.
“Chad was all over the field: 11 solo tackles, two assisted, created a fumble,” Lofthouse said. “The thing that Chad did that was so great for us: [Kyckelhahn] is a heckuva player, and his ability to extend the play and run from sideline to sideline, and to scramble and throw the ball, most of the night Chad was spying him and ran with him from sideline to sideline.
“As a result of Chad playing as well as he did, we were able to limit their quarterback’s ability to get those big run plays that their offense sometimes needs to be successful. He didn’t hurt us in terms of the big 20- or 30- or 40-yard touchdown runs or huge third-down extended plays, things of that nature. We were able to get off the field because of guys like Chad chasing him all over the field. We did a good job of limiting a very good football team to 14 points.”
Lofthouse loves his group of linebackers. Seniors Johnny Brigandi, Zach Debernarde and Brendan Duffy have been excellent alongside Koste, and junior Erik Hehl, an Edison transfer who was part of the starting unit during the summer and preseason, becomes eligible when Sunset League play begins next month.
Koste calls himself a “really technical” linebacker.
“I wouldn’t say I’m, like, the strongest or the fastest,” he said, “but I can get there before anyone else can because I can see it before anyone else can.”
That ability has attracted attention from Ivy League schools — Penn has an eye on Koste, who carries a 4.4 grade-point average — and Lofthouse thinks he’s good enough to play for Mountain West or Big Sky-type colleges. Koste says he’s open to spending two years at a junior college and likes Fullerton’s standout program.
“I’ve not spoken to too many coaches yet,” Lofthouse said. “I believe he can play at a high level. If you’re winning, recruiters come to schools that are winning. This is definitely going to be a year that puts him on the map, and if he sustains this level of play, he’s going to get a lot of interest. He’s got options because he’s got a high GPA, he’s a high-character kid, and he’s a good football player. For him, it’s what does he choose to do.”
Koste says that “if I have the opportunity [to play at a four-year school], I would.”
But first things first. Newport Harbor hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2014, last posted a winning record in 2013, when it reached the CIF Southwest Division title game, and it last won the Sunset League title in 2008, sharing it with four other teams. Lofthouse and the Sailors are building a foundation for something better. Watch out.
“If we come [into league play] rolling, who knows what will happen,” Koste said. “A lot of teams might be down this year, and it seems like we’re going to be up this year. Honestly, it seems like we’re capable of anything right now.”
Born: June 4, 2002
Hometown: Costa Mesa
Height: 6 feet 1
Weight: 210 pounds
Coach: Peter Lofthouse
Favorite food: Orange chicken
Favorite movie: “Forrest Gump”
Favorite athletic moment: Rushing for four touchdowns as a sophomore to lead the Sailors to a 52-35 win over Marina, their first of two wins after an 0-8 start.
Week in review: Koste made 13 tackles, 11 of them solo, forced and recovered a fumble and was pivotal in limiting leggy Aliso Niguel quarterback Kyle Kyckelhahn’s effectiveness as Newport Harbor rallied for a 24-14 victory on Sept. 6 to improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2010.
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