.Head On: The State of Santa Cruz County High School Football

San Lorenzo Valley High vs. Santa Cruz High scrimmage, Aug. 17:

Scotts Valley quarterback Kyle Rajala stands five yards back from the line of scrimmage, his offensive team lined up in shotgun formation. He catches the snap and immediately scans the field for an open receiver as his teammates sprint downfield, while a pocket of swarming defensive linemen collapses quickly around him.

Rajala spins right and sees an opening, a gap between the linemen wide enough to drive a semi through. He starts sprinting forward, then hesitates. The hole disappears. Rajala backpedals, spinning again—this time rolling to his left, with practically a third of the Santa Cruz High defense within arm’s reach, eager to bring him to the ground or at least chase him out of bounds. Moments before Rajala reaches the sideline, he sees what he’s looking for: an open man.

Tight end Will Schwartz is sprinting toward the end zone. Rajala launches a high-arching pass about a yard beyond Schwartz, who leaps into the air before making the catch and sliding to the artificial turf on the three-yard line, skidding forward as his body kicks up the rubbery pellets that fill the green Cabrillo College field.

The awe-inspiring catch from the high school senior brings an odd, bittersweet sense of relief to the crowd. Just a short time earlier, the entire scrimmage came to a halt when the Falcons’ Elias Avalos went down with a broken femur, stopping play for 15 minutes, while both teams waited for the offensive tackle, who eventually got wheeled off the field on a stretcher.

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But it brings chills to sports super fan Jennifer Lang, a mom who’s standing just beyond the end zone a few yards away. Jennifer is here tonight at this August pre-season jamboree to watch one of her three kids—CJ, a San Lorenzo Valley High senior—play. Jennifer is a lifelong football fan who proudly rooted for the Wolverine during her time at the University of Michigan. As much as she loves to see that her kids have taken to the sport, she says it’s impossible not to watch a little differently as a parent. She would hate to see one of her kids get hurt, and she feels for Avalos and his family.

Before his senior season ever got properly underway, high school football is now over for Avalos, a two-way player who also played defensive end and was the team’s defensive player two seasons running. The Falcons felt his absence immediately, but the tinges of pain run deeper than that. “I feel more bad for him than I do for the football team,” Scotts Valley Head Coach Louie Walters later tells me.

Media coverage in recent years has put football injuries under a microscope, less for broken bones than for concussions and the degenerative neurological disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which some researchers have linked to the sport.

San Lorenzo Valley blazed a new trail nearly three years ago, when it unveiled new cushioned caps covering its team’s football helmets, designed to limit the impact from blows to the head. This year, however, few of the Cougars are wearing them.

On this chilly August night at Cabrillo, Jennifer Lang turns to her husband Steve to ask him why most players, their son CJ included, stopped wearing their caps. “Family’s choice,” Steve tells her, meaning it’s up to each player and his family.

“Well, why isn’t he wearing his then?” Jennifer screams in only half-joking exasperation. “They’re just like high school girls,” she turns to me and says, grinning and shaking her head. “They want to look good out there.”

A few players on other local teams from around the area are now wearing those same impact-reducing caps, but not many. Jennifer suggests that it may have been easier for SLV to fully embrace the cushioned helmets long-term if the trend had spread countywide, although Head Coach Dave Poetzinger tells me the recent change was based on his “conversations with parents” and had nothing to do with aesthetics. In any case, Jennifer admits to sometimes wondering how much of a difference the caps really made in the first place, as she could often hear the impact of colliding helmets from the stands anyway.

Most local high school coaches have seen participation in their football programs drop in recent years—a shift they generally attribute to concern about injuries, although the coaches themselves seem to believe the fears are overblown.

Last year, participation in high school football dropped for the second straight season nationally—and for the third straight season in California, where it fell 6 percent from 2015 to 2017—while participation in high school sports climbed overall. Football remains far and away the most popular high school sport around, with more than 1 million participants nationwide, 97,000 of them in California. Football’s existential crisis extends to the NFL and college level; viewership is dropping for both, although no one can agree on the reasons.

CJ, SLV’s strong safety, says his own general well-being does cross his mind, but that he hasn’t gotten a concussion. He relishes practice time with his teammates, including the offseason workouts, for which he gladly woke up at 6 a.m. each of the past three winters to stay in shape.

“We’re like a brotherhood,” CJ says. “We care for each other, play for each other.”

Soquel coach
ROLL PLAYER Soquel High coach Dwight Lowery, who spent nine seasons in the NFL, plays the part of quarterback for a Knights recent practice. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

Soquel High vs. San Lorenzo High, Aug. 17 scrimmage:

One of Soquel High School’s star receivers is jogging back to his sideline, shortly after bringing in a catch for what nearly counted as a touchdown—were it not for him narrowly stepping out of bounds.

Three members of the opposing San Lorenzo Valley secondary jaw with the receiver as he jogs away, and he starts snapping back at them. A whistle blows. While a nearby official starts reaching for a yellow flag at his belt, the receiver gives a forceful tap to the nearest defensive back on his helmet facemask. The defender retaliates, hitting back a little harder before the receiver suddenly tackles his opponent, and a swarm of angry football players sprint into a mountainous dog pile, with athletes from the sidelines jumping in from every direction, as officials start blowing rapid-fire whistles and running over to stop the fight.

After the refs and coaches break up the brawl, the San Lorenzo Valley Cougars walk to the far sideline, while the Soquel Knights walk to their end zone, where newly hired coach Dwight Lowery proceeds to yell at them. The players, circled around him, slowly unclip their chin straps, take off their helmets and hang their heads. There are a couple minutes left on the Cabrillo scoreboard overhead, but there’s no point in finishing this final preseason match.

Both teams walk to their respective buses.   

“It’s embarrassing,” Lowery later tells me, recapping his remarks to the team that evening’s Cabrillo jamboree. “If you’re gonna fight somebody, fight ’em between the whistle. This is the only game you can play where it’s literally organized violence, and you won’t go to jail when it’s whistle to whistle. So why is it that, when the whistle’s blown, you want to fight somebody? It doesn’t make sense to me. You’re throwin’ a punch at a guy that has a helmet on. If you throw the punch hard enough and break your hand, was that punch worth it?”

San Lorenzo Valley Head Coach Dave Poetzinger feels similarly embarrassed by what transpired.

“When we set foot on the field, we say ‘no personal fouls.’ And the same basic principles go for life, too. We play the game with intensity and with respect,” says Poetzinger, who asks me not to use any of the players’ names involved and assures me they have been disciplined. “I hope we grow from it and move on.”

Lowery, Soquel’s newly hired head coach, went to Soquel himself—graduating in 2004 after dominating as a defensive back and running back who once scored seven touchdowns in one game. He then went on to play for Cabrillo College, San Jose State and eventually the NFL, where he spent nine seasons as a free safety. Lowery’s a self-described “nerd” who says he had to grow up too fast as a kid, and he still nurtures his inner child. Along with a game ball from his time with the New York Jets, the decorations in his office include Star Wars figurines and comic book memorabilia.

Lowery says his Soquel Knights need to learn structure, both on the football field and off of it. The values he believes he’s instilling—showing up on time, following instructions, staying focused, teamwork—apply to every other avenue of life, he says. No other sport, he argues, requires so much buy-in and communication from so many individuals on a team for the group to be successful.

Soquel’s squad, he adds, has been in need of a culture change. Lowery was upset, for example, when he learned that some of his players had gone running through a girls’ volleyball practice half-naked. “I’ve had to punish these guys hard—because if not, it’s never gonna change, unless I start kicking guys off the football team. And right now, we don’t got enough guys to be doing that type of stuff,” Lowery says. “You either learn, or you kick yourself off the team.”

For all of the attention in football given to being disciplined, many of the sport’s headlines at the national level are gobbled up by a U.S. leader weak on self-control and big on running his mouth. Last season, President Donald Trump began attacking NFL players for kneeling instead of standing during pre-game national anthems. The players were protesting incidents of police brutality and shootings of black Americans. Trump has suggested that any player who chose not to stand was a “son of a bitch” that should be “fired.”

Many pundits and NFL players have fumed at Trump’s words over the past year. But local players and coaches at the high school level say they aren’t ruffled by the president’s comments. But that doesn’t mean that those comments have gone unnoticed.

“We’re Santa Cruz County, so with some of the stuff Trump does and says, you don’t have to be a football coach to wonder why things are the way they are,” Poetzinger says.

At the national level, Brendon Ayanbadejo, a Santa Cruz High grad who went on to have a 10-year career in the NFL, has watched with pride as professional football players have grown more social justice-oriented. When he got criticized for supporting Maryland’s gay marriage ballot measure in 2012, he worried that he actually might get fired. Things are different now, he says, and if he were playing today, he would definitely be participating in the protests.

“The national anthem is near and dear to me, but so is the Constitution,” says Ayanbadejo, who took his message about LGBT rights to the highest level when his Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2013, Ayanbadejo’s final season.

Leaning back into the couch in his office, Lowery says he isn’t sure whether or not he would be participating in the anthem protests were he still playing in the NFL this season.  

“I understand both sides of the argument,” Lowery explains, as Soquel Athletic Director Stu Walters opens the door, walking into the office to sit down next to the new coach on the couch.

“I think the bottom line is we all need to stop being assholes,” Lowery continues, “whether it’s not supporting the country, or whether it’s injustice. Just try not to be an asshole.”

“That’s our motto,” Walters says, leaning forward into the conversation with a smile. “Don’t be a dick.”

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DOWN IN FRONT Cheerleaders rally the crowd at a recent Aptos High football game. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

Monte Vista Christian vs. Aptos High, Sept. 7:

It’s Aptos’ first offensive play against Monte Vista, and quarterback Hunter Matys is lined up under center.

After the snap, Matys brings the ball toward the belly of fullback Josh Powell, who’s running full-steam ahead for a possible handoff. But as Matys swivels his head around, he reads the defense charging toward them and opts to keep the ball instead, running around Powell, who bulldozes ahead into the nearest defensive end several inches taller than him for a hard-nosed block.

Matys turns the corner and starts sprinting down the sideline, past linebackers who try to cut him off. He has one man to beat, speedy Monte Vista outside linebacker Daniel Brierley, who angles down field a little behind the quarterback. Once Brierley reaches the 10-yard line, he lunges forward at Matys’ striding legs to bring him down just shy of the goal line and prevent the touchdown.

Two days before what would become a 35-0 win over Monte Vista, the Aptos Mariners are gathered for a 7 p.m. practice on their home turf, Trent Dilfer Memorial Stadium—named for their alma mater quarterback, who would go on to win a Super Bowl with the 2000 Ravens.

A dome-like marine layer hangs overhead, and by the time 7 p.m. rolls around, the practice is well underway, as the whole team has shown up early. Center Hayden Mennie has been leading offensive line drills with guard Josh Sousa-Jimenez. Coach Randy Blankenship refers to these two seniors as his “coaches on the field.” Along with their fellow linemen, these “soldiers,” as Blankenship also calls them, have been opening up big holes for Matys, Powell and running back Marcos Reyes, who went on to break the school’s all-time rushing record Friday night. The undefeated Mariners have squashed their opponents 146-27 over their first three games, and the offense hasn’t punted much, thanks largely to a smart offensive line, anchored by Minnie and Sousa-Jimenez, that pushes defenses downfield.

When it comes to injuries, no-nonsense Minnie has a special technique. “I don’t think about injuries,” he says, catching his breath in between reps at practice.

Aptos’ program is going strong, with 46 players on its varsity team. Unlike some schools, Aptos still has enough players for its own freshman team, in addition to a junior varsity one. Blankenship believes participation has dropped more generally across the region because “we’ve got a lot of soft people in California.”

Over the past 15 years, researchers, many of them at Boston University, have studied the neurodegenerative CTE, which is caused by repeated hits to the head, as well as its link to football. It’s difficult to get a clear look at how widespread the problem is, as the condition can only be diagnosed via an autopsy, during which a doctor runs brain scans and dissects the tissue. Among CTE’s symptoms are memory loss, suicidal thoughts and personality and mood changes.

Diagnosed players include former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, who shot himself in the chest at age 43, and former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who hung himself at 27, while serving a life sentence for murder. According to a Boston University report released last summer, experts found that the brains of 110 out of 111 former players tested did, in fact, have the disease—as did 48 of 53 college players and three out of 14 high school players.

Football coaches are quick to note the inherent risks of other sports. Blankenship says that, instead of football, people should be pointing fingers at soccer for its risk of concussions. A report found that girls’ soccer had the highest per capita rate of concussions in the country. And SLV’s water polo team, Poetzinger tells me, had more concussions last year than its football team.

But the truth is that concussions aren’t really the problem, at least not when it comes to CTE.

Chris Nowinski, co-founding CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, says that what has become clear in recent years is that the only thing that’s been linked to the disease is the number of total hits. “They’re looking at the wrong question,” Nowinski says of coaches raising such issues. “The question is, ‘Did you play 10 years of football, and take 10,000 hits to the head?’”

Nonetheless, Nowinski, a former WWE wrestler who played defensive tackle at Harvard, says that anyone playing four years of high school football will almost certainly be fine. “It doesn’t mean their risk is zero. The best guidance we can give is to limit the amount of years you play,” he says.  

High school football, particularly here in California, may be safer than ever. The California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) has cut down full-contact practice to two days a week for no more than 45 minutes per day. Coaches have changed the way they teach fundamentals in order to reduce helmet-to-helmet contact. Under an increasingly strict rule book, officials are also flagging players for reckless in-game hits.

Ayanbadejo, who graduated from Santa Cruz High in 1994, says he wonders pretty much every day if he’ll eventually develop CTE. He says he’s already had five of his friends either die or develop amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which some experts believe could also have a football connection.

“I would hit people on the football field, and I would think to myself, ‘There’s no way this isn’t gonna affect me later on in life, but at this juncture, there isn’t any data that says that it’s going to,’” Ayanbadejo remembers. “Later on, we learned that the NFL was withholding information on what really happens—not just from concussions, but from repetitive hits to the head. It definitely changed the way I played, hopefully not too late for me.”

Nowinski is working with other experts at Boston University’s CTE Center to study possible ways to diagnose CTE in living people. He hopes to have information within five years.

When scanning national headlines, it sometimes seems like in between toxic political arguments and questions about player safety, the entire sport of football has become oddly tainted. And yet, when Aptos High’s Friday night lights come on, no one is fighting about the validity of nonviolent protests or starting arguments on Twitter. In high school—where the levels of discourse and safety are much different than the NFL—football appears—on the surface, at least—largely free of the ills that have left an increasingly bad taste in the mouths of many football fans.

Even the collegiate level hasn’t been immune to controversy. The biggest university football programs in the country, like Alabama and Ohio State, rake in tens of millions of dollars annually from their teams, and that dynamic has opened an often ugly debate about whether or not the NCAA should loosen regulations that currently forbid schools from paying student athletes.

But again, that issue doesn’t affect high school football.

“We’re pretty pure in that way,” Poetzinger says.

Poetzinger, also an English teacher, stresses that it’s possible to have a winless season and still have great success stories. With declining participation, he worries about some of the kids who might have decided to suit up several years ago, but now decide against it. “I see kids that aren’t involved, and they’re falling off the map,” he says.

Santa Cruz High School senior Alonzo Rodriguez relishes the opportunity to make hard blocks and tackles as an outlet for his aggressive energy, which he apparently has plenty of. A fullback built with the frame of a wild boar on deceptively quick legs, he did try other sports as a kid, but they never held his interest. Rodriguez says that he once fouled out of a basketball game in less than a minute of playing time, accruing five fouls in just 48 seconds.

“Football helps me be more Zen, more at peace,” he tells me minutes before a Thursday afternoon practice gets underway at Santa Cruz High.

On the following night, a special rivalry match plays out on Santa Cruz High’s field. For four straight seasons, Santa Cruz was the winner of the annual “stump game” against Soquel High. This year, though, Coach Lowery’s Knights pull off a 20-13 win with a strong come-from-behind second-half performance against the Cardinals—good for a 3-0 start to their season, their first in years.

After the final buzzer sounds, exuberant Soquel players high-five in the middle of Santa Cruz High’s field and scream into the heavens. They pass around the game’s trophy—a stump-like slab of redwood with each school’s logos painted on. The Knights players feel grains in the wood, while parents take out their phones to snap pictures. Every player gets a photograph with this piece of county history. Friends swarm the field to congratulate the strong-willed Lowery, who is all smiles for the moment.

Jumping up and down, senior Zeke Thomas starts a chant of “We’ve got the stump!” to the tune of Parliament’s “Give Up the Funk.”

Thomas, who stiff-armed a cornerback for the game’s final touchdown, praises the sense of structure that Lowery has brought to Soquel, calling him the “coach of year.”

“All this hard work!” Thomas yells. “He told us that as long as we put in the work, it’ll pay off.”

In Division

For the second straight year, California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) has shaken up the local football divisions. This year, all of the Monterey Bay high school teams are in a new Pacific Coast Athletic League (PCAL), which has been divided into four sections. The downside of the new approach, explains Santa Cruz High Coach Jesse “Bubba” Trumbull, is that teams have to travel farther for league matches, and they don’t have many rivals in their own divisions. The upside, at least in theory, is parity.

Trumbull says he does like the “concept of an equity league, where you’re playing teams that should be close to your same student population and turnout for the sport.”

“If the divisions are only based on geographics, there’s gonna be haves and have-nots in one small area,” he adds.

That’s the scenario that the new setup is attempting to avoid. Each division has seven teams. Dominant Aptos High (3-0) is grouped in with other Monterey Bay powerhouses that are similarly competitive to form PCAL’s Gabilan Division. Divisional games won’t start for another couple weeks, but the Mariners have set the goal of winning the league title.

The next level under Gabilan, the Mission Division, has three county teams—Watsonville (3-0), Scotts Valley (2-1) and Monte Vista Christian (0-3). Watsonville and Scotts Valley have shown the ability to wear opponents down with their strong power running games. Monte Vista has its own bag of tricks under new head coach Jubenal Rodriguez that could win some big games, once the Mustangs’ rough early-season schedule calms down.

After that, the Cypress Division is the new home of San Lorenzo Valley (2-1), St. Francis (2-1) and the Santa Cruz Cardinals (0-3), who are still winless, in spite of some fun-to-watch skilled players and an intriguing spread offense tailored to the abilities of quarterback Dillon Danner. Two of their losses have been to Scotts Valley and Watsonville, both teams that are in the higher tier.

The fourth division, Santa Lucia, has three county teams, Soquel (3-0), Harbor (0-2) and Pajaro Valley (0-3). Some wins this season could move those teams back up again, and given the fluidity in recent years, there could soon be whispers of further tweaking—if not reinventing—the setup the whole set up again, anyway.


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