For a program that has continued to win the last three seasons, Stone Ridge Christian has gone through plenty of changes.
Mark Gutierrez steps in as the new head coach after Keith Borges stepped down for family reasons during the first week of practice. Gutierrez becomes the third Knights coach in three seasons, and the team will be running its third different offense in three seasons.
Players have come and gone and yet, Stone Ridge Christian has managed to win two Sac-Joaquin Section championships and reach three three finals the past three years, posting a 33-7 record.
Don’t expect the goals and expectations to change this season.
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“It’s still football,” senior running back Shane Casillas said. “Kids have to show up and play. It shouldn’t matter what offense we run. We’ve always been known as a smaller school, a hard-working team. That isn’t going to change.”
Casillas is one of eight seniors who have grown up in the program. They were freshmen on the Knights first section championship team. All they’ve experienced at Stone Ridge Christian is three winning seasons. It gives SRC a good foundation to build upon.
“It’s not just that they’ve had success, they’ve had success in different ways,” Gutierrez said. “They’ve run a couple different offensives. They’ve won with the defense leading the team. They’ve won with the offense leading the team. That’s super beneficial for me coming in as a new coach. It’s not going to be hard for them to buy in to the changes I’ve made because they’ve had success in different ways.”
One of the big challenges the Knights will face this season is a small roster of only 23 players. Stone Ridge Christian had 36 players on the roster last season. It’s not uncommon for teams with small rosters to still win, but you have to stay healthy and you have to manage the season with some finesse.
“I think the numbers are scary for us in terms of depth,” Gutierrez said. “It doesn’t change our expectations. It doesn’t change the goals we have as a team. We have to find ways to get quality reps for our guys without getting them banged up. Day in and day out.
“Having experience guys helps out.”
When you have a small roster it also helps that a majority of them can play. The Knights return some talented players such as Casillas in the backfield, Luke Jenkins at tight end, quarterback Bryce Louters and defensive end and lineman Gabe Bartholomew.
“Hopefully we can lead them to some big wins,” Jenkins said. “It’s important that we carry on what we’ve been doing. Hopefully this next senior class will all continue that.”
Casillas rushed for 1,991 yards and 28 touchdowns as a sophomore for the Knights, but suffered a leg injury in the NorCal Bowl play-in game at the end of the season. Casillas only played sparingly late in the season last year, rushing for 359 yards and four touchdowns.
Gutierrez saw first-hand how explosive Casillas could be when he was the defensive coordinator at El Capitan and the Gauchos played Stone Ridge Christian in 2015 in a game that the Knights won 40-34.
“He looks like a different man this year,” Gutierrez said. “My first experience with him was calling a defense against him when he was a sophomore and chewed us up for 250 yards. We went into that game not knowing a lot about him. Our focus was on Johnny (Collazo).
“(Casillas) didn’t look like the same kid watching last year on film. He looks like he’s ready to go now.”
Jenkins also looks poised for a big season. He has the size, speed and knowledge of the game that he’s not the type of player who could only have success at the small-school level.
“Luke is a kid that I didn’t know about until I got here,” Gutierrez said. “He’s one of those type of players who could play on any team in the section. He would start on any team in the area. He’s the emotional leader. When I was talking about not getting our guys banged up, he’s one of the guys I’m talking about. Luke doesn’t have an on-off switch. He just goes 100 mph all the time. He’s a playmaker.”
The Knights hope to be fighting with teams like Brookside Christian and Big Valley Christian for the Central California Athletic Alliance championship. SRC lost 54-21 to Brookside Christian in the section finals last season.
“The first time I wasn’t coaching football past Halloween was last year (at El Capitan),” Gutierrez said. “Here the tradition is to continue playing football past Thanksgiving time. That’s the tradition we want to continue.”
Players to Watch
1. Reuben Lee, running back/defensive back, Brookside Christian: Lee needed just nine games to rush for 1,724 yards and 21 touchdowns to help lead the Knights to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VII championship. The transfer from Lincoln is unstoppable at the small-school level.
2. Jarred Thompson, reciever, Big Valley Christiain: Big Valley Christian’s top target last fall, the 6-foot-2 Thompson finished with 27 catches for 281 yards and two touchdowns. He moves from tight end to wide receiver in first-year coach Brian Berkefeld’s offense.
3. Tyrone Vickers, receiver/free saftey, Brookside Christian: Vicker gives the Knights another playmaker. He caught 45 balls for 658 yards and five touchdowns last season to help during Brookside Christian’s postseason run.
4. Finn Bamrud, offensive line/defensive line, Big Valley Christian: The 6-foot-2, 240-pound two-way lineman is the strongest of all the Lions, but he’s also one of its most athletic. Bamrud played some tight end at the end of last season.
5. Jayven Drobnick, running back, Big Valley Christian: Rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season at the junior varsity level and has the potential to better those numbers in his first varsity season. Drobnick plays smaller than his predecessor Vito Merrit, but what he lacks in size he makes up for with speed and shakes.
2016 Final Standings
School (league, overall records)
Stone Ridge Christian (4-1, 9-3)
Brookside Christian (4-1, 9-5)
Millennium (3-2, 6-3)
Big Valley Christian (3-2, 6-4)
Turlock Christian (1-4, 2-8)
Sierra Ridge/ROP (0-6, 1-9)