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Season Preview: Class in session for defending D-III champion West Valley

Greg Grandell passes on winning knowledge as West Valley looks to earn degree in winning back-to-back Northern Section titles.

TAKING NOTES: Greg Grandell, the Northern Section’s winningest active coach, leads the Eagles in a quest for back-to-back titles led by, from left, Jacob Johnston, Jacob Best, Cade Lambert, Kitt McCloughan, Bryan Miller, Josh Aguilar, Garrett Thibodeau and Brayden Smith.

COTTONWOOD — After three decades of coaching, Greg Grandell stood near midfield on unpainted turf and reminisced about one of the earliest memories he has as a West Valley football coach.

“Cade Lambert’s dad caught a screen pass right about where I’m standing and took it all the way for a touchdown, and we beat Corning for the first time in school history.”

The vault of historical knowledge, strategies, tendencies and sequences from the Northern Section’s winningest active coach is going to take time to tap into. But his players sure try to extract as much as they can. It’s why The Pasture transforms into a night class for four months in the fall with the tests coming every Friday.

And Grandell, who sits at 184 wins after last year’s 12-2 mark as NSCIF Division III champs and the program’s first CIF State playoff appearance, isn’t slowing down.

“There’s not another guy I would want to work under as a football player,” said Lambert, a two-way senior captain and the Shasta County Sports’ preseason MVP. “My dad says (Grandell) still has the same fire and energy as he did back then.”

A second generation of players are coming through the program under Grandell. The crop returning from 2018 must take on a different identity after last season’s devoted promise to claim a title after the loss of teammate Tyson Wacker, who died from injuries suffered in an October 2018 car accident. It’s a tough message to accept, but it’s how the Eagles will grow in life through football, Lambert said.

“It’s going to be in the back of our minds until the day we die; that feeling we had when we won the section for him will always be there,” Lambert said. “But we want to feel that again. And we have to feel that with this new group of guys coming up and show them how it is — like the seniors from last year showed us.”

The scary part for the rest of the section is the 2019 version of the Eagles might be better overall than last year’s unprecedented squad.

Lambert is at the forefront of the charge as the backfield leader after 403 rushing yards and seven touchdowns as a backup to bell-cow and BYU walk-on Bailey Sulzer, who carried the rock more than anyone else in the section. Alongside him is junior Josh Aguilar, who Grandell says has sneaky speed for a fullback. That pairing takes a little pressure off returning quarterback Kitt McCloughan, who carries big-game experience into his senior campaign.

“It’s awesome to know they’re going to get five or six yards every time I turn and hand the ball off to them,” McCloughan said.

Command of the offense is what McCloughan brings to the field. He can throw, tuck and run, and he has weapons all around him as the Eagles go back to their traditional two-back, fly-back set.

Jacob Best and Damien Long lead the pass-catchers while Brandon Maroste, Walker Steele and possibly Dylan Booth offer versatility as a runner or receiver from the fly position. Up front, the strong side is solidified with senior returning starters Brayden Smith at tackle and Bryan Miller at guard. Phoenix McDaniel and Aiden Ellis secure the backside and Loren Casey and Ethan Croup are vying for the center position.

Usually when a team loses a guy that accounts for nearly 50 percent of the offense like Sulzer did, it cripples the returners. Not these guys. Optimism is abundant.

“I think we’re a state championship offense,” McCloughan said. “We have the backfield, guys catching the ball and the best line I’ve ever seen.”

Duplicating the defensive effort might be a tougher task after West Valley set a school record with six shutouts last year, including the section final win over Sutter where the Eagles didn’t allow a first down on the night.

The linebacking corps is an obvious strength with Lambert and his head-turning 130 tackles and four interceptions from a year ago. Senior inside linebacker Jacob Johnston would have started for any other team last year but didn’t see much of the field as Sulzer’s backup, Grandell said. Aguilar is on the outside in the Eagles’ 4-4 scheme along with senior Garrett Thibodeau who plays the “bandit” and can be a hybrid safety or coverage linebacker after adding 26 pounds in the offseason.

Baseball standout Wyatt Reginato lurks at free safety, but Thibodeau believes the strength could be with the guys in the trenches despite not returning a single starter. Spencer Sellers, Tyler Bowman and Cameron Troutman can handle the dirty work and set the tone at the line.

T.J. is a national-award winning journalist passionate about local news and telling the story no one else knows about. He’s roamed sidelines, baselines and bleachers in the North State since 2010 and is a content producer from sunup to sundown. Sports are a hobby he shares with his wife Tracy where they’ve spent many dates around a field or court of some sort.

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