BELL GARDENS — The first thing one notices when exiting the northbound 710 Freeway in Bell Gardens is the flashing lights of the Bicycle Casino.
The Newport Harbor High football team and its fans passed the casino Thursday night, on the way to a scrimmage at Bell Gardens High. When they got there, the fans noticed that chance also seemed to play a role in the Sailors' jersey numbers for the scrimmage.
The Sailors played roulette with the numbers, with everything random. Coach Jeff Brinkley explained why.
"We actually thought we were going to be in white," Brinkley said. "Our practice jerseys are white. [Bell Gardens Coach Geoff Ackerman] called me and said they wanted to wear their practice jerseys, so we had to just throw on a quick blue jersey. We really didn't care about the numbers, as long as they had an eligible number."
It still was not hard to distinguish the players during the 80-minute scrimmage. There was junior quarterback Cole Norris slinging the ball to myriad receivers, including Keaton Cablay, Quest Truxton, Cory Stowell and Brett Beaudette. And there was junior tailback Chance Siemonsma, running the ball confidently behind a physical offensive line.
The Sailors, ranked No. 8 in the CIF Southern Section Southwest Division preseason poll, appeared to click on offense. But Brinkley, who is in his 28th year in charge, said there were still areas of improvement needed heading into the Sept. 6 season opener at Trabuco Hills.
Bell Gardens, the defending Almont League champion that is ranked No. 6 in the Mid-Valley Division, presented a unique challenge to the Sailors' defense. Senior quarterback Charles Ontiveros, a left-hander, scrambled, ran the option and made some nice throws.
"We need to play more physical than we did tonight," Brinkley said. "They did some things, obviously, that we didn't prepare for in running the option. We didn't have any film on them or anything, so we got hit with some things we weren't prepared for. Schematically, I can accept that, [but] I don't like the fact that we didn't play quite physical enough."
The Sailors did shut down the Lancers on their first three offensive series, allowing just one first down. When Newport Harbor went on offense, it immediately went on a nine-play, 80-yard touchdown drive.
Siemonsma ran left for a 30-yard gain on the second play from scrimmage, following a crushing block from All-CIF returner Ramsey Hufford. After a seven-yard run by Riley Gaddis, Norris went to work.
He hit Stowell on an 11-yard pass, then Beaudette on a 16-yard completion. After a five-yard run by fullback Trevor Shaw, Gaddis carried the ball 12 yards to the one-yard line.
Siemonsma ran it in from there, and the offense stayed impressive as the scrimmage went into various down and distance situations. At one point, in third-and-eight situations, Norris completed five straight passes.
"He's not what I would call a really fast-running person, but he's got great mobility in the pocket," Brinkley said. "He can move around in the pocket and buy himself time, and still keep his head up and make a play. He's starting to get a better grasp of the offense; he made good decisions tonight."
Norris did just that, stepping up for consecutive long passes to Stowell down the right and left sides of the field. The second one went for a 78-yard touchdown. And Newport Harbor also excelled in first-and-goal situations to end the scrimmage, scoring on five of six plays.
Ackerman, who was previously the defensive coordinator at Schurr, is in his first year at Bell Gardens. He said his team is working on being more assignment-sound. But he relished the chance to play a bigger program like Newport Harbor.
"It was everything we wanted," Ackerman said. "They're a higher-division team, and a well-established, well-organized program. Just for the exposure to our kids, I can't thank them enough. Classy all the way. Some very, very good football players on this field tonight."
There also were some special teams miscues at the start of the scrimmage that Brinkley said he wasn't happy with, but his squad has a week to iron out the mistakes. The Sailors will be able to scout Trabuco Hills on Friday night, as the Mustangs play at Dana Hills in their season opener. Trabuco Hills begins the season ranked No. 8 in Orange County, by the Register; Newport Harbor is No. 12.
"It's going to be a tough game," Brinkley said. "We've got our work cut out for us."