To be the best, Coach Mike Bargas believes his Estancia High football team must face the best. He didn't need to go far to find the top program from the CIF Southern Section Southern Division last year.
Corona del Mar is only a 15-minute drive from Estancia. The Eagles are making the short trip to scrimmage the defending section champion Sea Kings on Aug. 25 at 9 a.m.
"We were a week short of locking horns with those guys," said Bargas, referring to last year, when he led the Eagles to the semifinals. "I want our kids to get a feel for what it's going to take to be at the top and learn from it."
Bargas isn't satisfied with last season, even though it turned out to be a historic one for Estancia.
The Eagles reached the semifinals of the playoffs for the first time. They went undefeated in league for the second straight year, another first.
The hard part now, Bargas said, is making sure the team meets its new lofty expectations. Bargas is going to rely on 29 seniors, his largest senior class in his six years at Estancia, to lead the way.
Estancia boasts the talent and experience to make a run at the school's first section crown. The program has the workhorse to get there in senior tailback Robert Murtha.
Murtha goes by the nickname "Boy." To Bargas, Murtha, a 5-foot-9, 195-pounder, has become a man.
Soon, Murtha will become the all-time leading rusher in Newport-Mesa.
Murtha has rushed for 3,895 yards and he's 439 yards away from the district record. Three of the guys up front who paved the way for Murtha the past two seasons are gone.
Two of those seniors lined up on the left side, tackle Zach Bateman, a 6-6, 310-pounder, and guard Givraan Gutierrez. They earned Daily Pilot Newport-Mesa Dream Team honors after Murtha rushed for 2,216 yards, an Estancia single-season school record.
Murtha, who rushed for 20 touchdowns, garnered Dream Team and Orange Coast League Offensive Player of the Year awards. He also made the All-CIF Southern Section Southern Division team for the second straight year.
In the off-season, Murtha gained 15 pounds, mostly muscle. His fullback, senior DeionTe Haywood, returns and he's a load at 6-3 and 215 pounds.
The skill positions are where the Eagles return most of their seven senior offensive starters. Wide receivers Ben Beck and Levi Stillman look to hook up with quarterback Brad Wilson more often in their second year together on varsity.
On the defensive side, Estancia has five starters back. Defensive tackle Kevin Peters will try to clog up the middle the same way his older brother, Alipa Peters, did last season.
"Kevin's a better athlete than Alipa, just because he's 15 to 20 pounds [lighter] … and more athletic," said Bargas, who had a standout in the 6-3, 275-pound Alipa, an All-CIF player and the Co-Orange Coast League Defensive Player of the Year last season.
Alipa played a large role in Estancia's defense last year. The unit allowed 14.5 points per game, the lowest in the area.
The average ranks No. 1 under Bargas' watch. The defensive play has improved every year under him. Bargas said much of the credit goes to Dave Holland, the defensive coordinator.
If there's a coach on Bargas' staff who knows what it takes to guide a program to a section crown it's Holland. He led CdM to its first two section titles, going back-to-back in 1988 and '89.
With the trip to CdM before the Eagles' season opener at home against Loara on Aug. 31, Holland sort of gets to go home. What the Sea Kings have there is what Estancia wants: a section crown..
League: Orange Coast
CIF Division: Southern
Coach: Mike Bargas (sixth year, 30-26)
Staff: Dave Holland (defensive coordinator), Mike Murphy (linebackers), Christian Higuchi (defensive line), Lance Chavez (offensive line), Brian Burgess (running backs), Chris Martinez (wide receivers), Chris Bargas (defensive backs)
2011 season: 10-3, 5-0 in Orange Coast League (first place), lost to Beckman, 57-21, in the semifinals of the CIF Southern Section Southern Division playoffs
Returning starters: seven offense, five defense
Returning with honors: RB Robert Murtha, QB Brad Wilson, CB-WR Levi Stillman, LB Colby Koste, DT Kevin Peters
31 - Loara
7 - at Ocean View
13 - Irvine
20 - vs. University at Irvine
28 - vs. Sonora at La Habra
5 - Costa Mesa*
12 - Laguna Beach*
19 - vs. Godinez* at Segerstrom
26 - Saddleback*
2 - vs. Calvary Chapel* at Estancia
*denotes league game
All games 7 p.m.