Ready or not, Dhameer Warren was suddenly the starting quarterback for Merced High last season.
A shoulder injury in the opening game of the season sidelined starter Jake Foss and put the spotlight directly on Warren, who was just a sophomore at the time, trying to adjust to the varsity level as a defensive back.
Warren started the next seven games at quarterback before Foss was ready to take over the starting spot again. Warren completed 50 of 72 passes for an impressive 69 percent completion percentage. He threw for 788 yards with 11 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He also had 364 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
The experience should help Warren hit the ground running this season as he gives the Bears a dynamic playmaker from the quarterback position.
“I think the experience is invaluable,” Merced coach Rob Scheidt said. “He really hasn’t played a lot of quarterback prior to last year and hadn’t been coached at a high level at quarterback. The expectations are high for him. The thing I don’t want him to do is feel like he has to do everything. I think we limited him a year ago to make sure he was comfortable. We kept it pretty basic.”
Now the Bears are ready to open up their offense and Warren is ready for the challenge.
“I feel really good,” Warren said. “I’ve been in every situation, when we’re up or down, I’ve been in close games. I feel if we can keep our composure, we can win those games this year. I feel a lot more comfortable. I know everything play-wise. Last year I had to ask the coaches.”
The Bears finished third in the Central California Conference last season after close losses to eventual champions Turlock and second-place Pitman.
All three teams should be near the top again this year. Buhach Colony may also be knocking on the door. After bringing up seven sophomores last year the Thunder should benefit from their experience.
This will be the last year of the CCC with these seven teams before realignment takes place. Next season Turlock and Pitman will move into what is now the Modesto Metro Conference. Patterson and Central Valley will take their place in the CCC.
“Right now you have to consider Turlock and Pitman as the two teams to beat,” Scheidt said. “We had a shot at beating both of them last year. We had chances in both games but we didn’t win. I think we can be right there with them. Buhach Colony should be better. They have LJ Wallace and I’m sure they’ll find ways to get him the ball. Golden Valley lost a lot of guys. El Capitan has a new head coach. Atwater also has a new coach.”
Despite finishing third, Merced went on to reach the semifinals in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs where the Bears lost to eventual state bowl champion Oakdale.
Merced will be more than just the Warren show this season.
The Bears return four starters on the offensive line including Clifford Johnson and Michael Rogel.
Merced does have to find a way to replace running backs Ulonzo Gilliam and Rayveon Slaton, who combined to rush for 2,204 yards and 31 touchdowns.
Andre Barnett looks to be the featured back, but he’ll rotate with sophomore Elijah Gilliam – Ulonzo’s brother – and El Capitan transfer Garrett Egan.
“It’s not just going to be me,” said Barnett, who will also play linebacker. “We have three running backs. It’s going to be a rotation of all three of us. Dhameer can run the ball, too. I’m pretty confident in our line. I know they are going to get the job done.”
Barnett and the rest of the returners know it’s their job to lead the way if Merced is going to regain the top spot in the CCC and make another deep playoff run.”
“We have a lot of juniors coming up,” Barnett said. “They’re showing a lot of heart. They are good at listening and learning. They’ve really picked it up.”
“I like that the returning guys are out there working hard and staying positive with the younger guys,” Rogel said. “We’re showing them how it works. We all experienced the playoff run we made at the end of last year and we want that to carry over.”
Players to Watch
1. L.J. Wallace, defensive back/receiver, Buhach Colony: The Thunder senior verbally committed to the University of Colorado before the start of fall camp. With his size and speed, Wallace is a lockdown corner for the Buhach Colony defense.
2. Dustin Grein, receiver, defensive back, Turlock: Grein, a talented two-way player, was an all-CCC first team selection at wide receiver and defensive back. He averaged 7 yards per carry and scored six rushing touchdowns, reeled in 15 catches for 259 yards and three scores, and accounted for five turnovers (three interceptions, two fumble recoveries).
3. Brenden Tallent, offensive lineman, Pitman: The all-Central California Conference offensive lineman helped pave the way for the Pride to average 254 rushing yards per game last season. A talented wrestler, Tallent uses his skills from the mat to his advantage in the trenches.
4. Lucas Duda, linebacker, El Capitan: The Gauchos have a new coach this season in Frank Solis and one of the players the former defensive assistant knows he can count on his Duda. The senior gives El Capitan a playmaker from his linebacker position.
5. Lance Bickle, tight end, Pitman: At 6 feet, 2 inches tall and 225 pounds, Bickle was named to the all-Central California Conference second team last fall. Bickle wasn’t utilized much in the passing game, but was big in opening holes for Devan Bass last season.
2016 Final Standings
School (league, overall records)
Turlock (6-0, 9-3)
Pitman (5-1, 10-2)
Merced (4-2, 9-4)
Buhach Colony (3-3, 5-5)
El Capitan (2-4, 3-7)
Golden Valley (1-5, 5-5)
Atwater (0-6, 0-10)