When the cameras and the crowds and the headlines disappeared, the Patterson High football program took notice. As the injuries and losses mounted, a chip began to develop: We'll make them pay attention, became the battle cry.
The 2017 season was a redemptive year for the Tigers, who answered a 2-8 campaign in 2016 with a Western Athletic Conference championship and Sac-Joaquin Section Division III semifinal appearance.
"What a difference a year makes," Patterson coach Rob Cozart said. "We really do feel that once we struggled last season and had a very hard time overcoming the injuries to our program, that a majority of the people in our area wrote us off. Those that really knew what we were experiencing, and the people inside our program, never lost faith in who we were. "
The Tigers' strides were confirmed at the year-end league coaches meeting, where Patterson (11-2, 5-0) was showered with praise.
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Quarterback Gabe Sanchez was named the WAC's Most Valuable Player, while defensive stalwarts Jacob Vainuku and Kingston Mamea also earned major individual awards.
Vainuku was named the Outstanding Defensive Lineman and Mamea, a transfer from Turlock, earned the Outstanding Defense award.
Cozart was the Coach of the Year.
He praised this team for putting the program back on track. Patterson has been on a rollercoaster ride the last three seasons, beginning with its first-ever 10-0 start in 2015. Then came the frustrations of the 2016, which included injuries to quarterback Kevin Todd and wide receiver Pierre Williams, key contributors on the 2015 WAC championship squad.
"The trials and tribulations of 2016 needed to happen for our program to evolve," Cozart said. "Our underclassmen needed to see just how important it is to stay the course and continue to work hard in trying to reach our goals. The team of 2017 and all of its successes has proven that no matter how much you are disrespected, looked over, passed on, or talked down ... it takes believing in yourself to make things right and make things work to your own expectations. I'm so very proud of the way our young men took on the task of proving so many wrong and paving the way for the underclassmen behind them."
Sanchez played with the biggest chip on his shoulder. Cozart said the option quarterback wanted to prove he could handle the rigors of running a hybrid offense.
Sanchez was the only quarterback in the Stanislaus District to throw for more than 2,500 yards and rush for 1,000. He completed 71.2 percent of his passes for 2,571 yards and led the district with 39 touchdowns.
On the ground, he was just as dynamic. Sanchez paced the Tigers with 1,006 yards.
"Gabe is a tremendous competitor and thrives on proving people wrong," Cozart said. "His 2017 campaign was nothing short of that. As an option quarterback, he knew he was taking on a large task of leading an offense that uses tempo and aggressiveness to attack a defense's weakness and he did that with his 'never give up' style of play."
Mamea made a quick impression on WAC coaches. The 6-foot, 235-pound middle linebacker sat out the first 30 days of the season following his transfer from Turlock, but asserted himself as the leader of the defense once eligible.
"Kingston is a true inside linebacker who loves to lead a defense," Cozart said. "He works tirelessly at his craft and wants to be better everyday. Once he stepped on the game field after sitting out, he changed the way we played defense and guys rallied behind him."
His emergence allowed Cozart to move Vainuku into the trenches. Vainuki began the season at middle linebacker, but his strength and big body made him a more suitable fit on the defensive line.
Like Mamea, Vainuku helped solidify the WAC's best scoring defense. The Tigers allowed less than 13 points per game in five league contests.
"Jacob was a monster for us, and opponents too," Cozart said. "He actually started the year at inside linebacker and they we realized where he would benefit our defense more in the long run, so we moved him down to defensive line where his strength and quickness would be a huge advantage. He really took on every challenge in the trenches, and relished in the fact that teams would either run away from him or double-team him when possible."
Central Valley took home the other two major awards.
David Serrano was named Outstanding Offensive Lineman. Serrano was a force on both sides of the ball. Despite constant double and triple teams, Serrano tied for the league lead in sacks with six. He also paved the way for running back Estevan Barragan, the Outstanding Offense award winner.
In three varsity seasons, Serrano has blocked for three 1,000-yard running backs.
"To be honest, a fourth-place team should not receive two major awards," Central Valley coach Scott Edwards said. "But in truth, these two carries an awful lot of weight on their backs this season, and I think the majority of WAC coaches recognized that."
Barragan was a do-it-all talent for the Hawks. He led the team in rushing (1,111 yards), receiving (503 yards), total touchdowns (15) and tackles (110). He ranked in the top-6 in each category for the league, including first in tackles for the second time in three seasons.
"Every one of our opponents soon learned that he was truly our only weapon, yet he always found a way to succeed ... to impose his will," Edwards said.
All-WAC Honor Roll
MVP: QB Gabe Sanchez, Patterson
Outstanding Offense: RB Estevan Barragan, Central Valley
Outstanding Offensive Lineman: David Serrano, Central Valley
Outstanding Defensive Lineman: Jacob Vainuku, Patterson
Outstanding Defense: LB Kingston Mamea, Patterson
Coach of the Year: Rob Cozart, Patterson
First Team: QB Anthony Caballero, Los Banos; RB Antonio Lopez, Los Banos; RB Andrew Gibson, Ceres; WR James Perez, Patterson; WR Kendrick Bond, Patterson; WR Daniel Guerrero, Los Banos; OL Logan Foumai, Patterson; OL Ronin Taylor, Patterson; OL CJ Samifua, Pacheco; OL Anthony Barba, Los Banos; OL Manny Ramirez, Livingston; DL Logan Foumai, Patterson; DL Chris Perez, Los Banos; DL David Serrano, Central Valley; DL Vince Bocanegra, Central Valley; DE/OLB Tobia Lesui, Pacheco; DE/OLB Adrian Atengan, Los Banos; DB Kendrick Bond, Patterson; DB Adam Caballero, Pacheco; DB Andrea Castillo, Los Banos.