Two seasons ago, the Shasta Wolves’ season ended nine days before Christmas. And while no one is writing a wish list to Santa Claus for a command performance just yet, there’s reason to believe in a little holiday magic on the westside.
In 2017, Shasta’s season came together as a perfect storm of talent, experience and coaching as the Wolfpack beat Marin Catholic in the NorCal 3-AA championship before running into a Bishop Diego buzz saw in the state final. But before the tidal wave of success hit Thompson Field, the Wolves struggled in 2016 to a 6-6 mark and a semifinal playoff exit at the hands of Pleasant Valley.
But in that .500 season, the Wolves sewed the seeds of 2017’s success.
“We took our lumps in 2016, but we were a team heavy with juniors who had to play a lot and learned what it takes to play varsity football,” said Shasta coach JC Hunsaker. “By the time 2017 came around, they’d put in the offseason work and had a leg up on the offense and defense.”
And that was as much a key in the Shasta success as the talented crew led by Troy Lyons, Detrius Kelsall, Ian Garcia, Vinny Smith and Seth Park.
Fast forward past the state runner-up run and, in addition to a success hangover, the Wolves experienced the imperfect storm — the deadly Carr Fire, which ravaged much of west Redding and wreaked havoc for families of Shasta students.
Much of the summer practice sessions were more focused on players’ well-being, air quality numbers and working out practice times in the school’s two gyms than X’s and O’s.
“It really put us behind in a lot of ways,” the coach said. “Others were dealing with it as well, but we had players who’d lost homes and didn’t know where they were going to be for the upcoming school year.”
That distraction and a healthy dose of overconfidence led to a 3-8 season in which the Wolves never got rolling.
“I think the kids expected success without earning it. You’re not going to get anything if you don’t earn it,” Hunsaker said.
Jump ahead to today and much like the summer of 2017, there’s a quiet optimism for the Wolfpack.
For starters, the group that struggled to a 3-8 season and a first-round exit from the playoffs was, by and large, a younger group — especially on the defensive side of the ball.
And that’s the parallel to 2017 that excites longtime defensive coordinator Kirk Ramage.
His 4-4, blitz-heavy scheme requires players to adjust on the fly and react to what the opponent is trying to do.
“It takes a while to get it where it’s second nature,” he said. “Those guys (in 2017) got it, and I think we’re starting to see that from this group.”
At least 10 players who started multiple games on defense return for the Wolves, including Isaiah Pena, whose position Lyons aptly filled two years prior.
“Isaiah is going to be the face of the defense,” Hunsaker said. “His strength is coming at quarterbacks and at 6-2, 190, he moves well.
“I know Kirk is going to use him as a run-stopper but also find ways to be a pass-rushing linebacker.”
And while Pena, a first-team All Shasta County pick last year, is the defensive quarterback, there’s a handful of returners who have a year of Ramage’s scheme under their belt.
Alex Beltran will help anchor a secondary often left on an island in Ramage’s blitz-happy packages.
Beltran is joined by Jerry Fournier, Famous Armstrong and Nathan Bova along with rising junior Tate Fagan, a newcomer whose speed could make a major impact in coverage.
“At camp, Beltran showed how instinctive he can be,” Hunsaker said. “He’s quick with his feet and uses techniques well.
“He’s physical enough to bump down to outside linebacker, but his strength is seeing things in front of him and breaking on the ball.”
Along with Pena, the linebacking corps includes Josh Akana, who saw time at outside backer last season and Josh Welch, a rising senior who has plenty of physicality.
Johari Woods, who missed much of last season with a broken ankle, will be back in the fold as well.
And as good as the linebackers could be, the front four may be the strength of the defense.
Keiton Spengler was a second-team All Shasta County Sports pick, and, anchors the line along with a plethora of interchangeable pieces, allowing Ramage to mix and match depending on down and distance.
“He may be the most talented D lineman that’s not the most athletic,” Hunsaker said, adding Spengler “works techniques well.”
He said if Spengler gets an offensive lineman in a phone booth he’ll use technique and leverage to his advantage.
“When he gets in a one-on-one, he’s going to win,” the coach said.
In addition to Spengler, Bryce Bianchi, a big body with a non-stop motor returns, as well as Kane Stankey, Jason Kupono Kealiinohomoku, Logan Thibodeau and Bladen Stankey, all of whom could see time on the offensive line as well.
Kupono will be a three-year starter and likely the starting offensive right tackle while Thibodeau switched from fullback to offensive guard last season and showed tremendous speed and strength during summer camp.
“He didn’t have confidence last year and still did a great job,” Hunsaker said. “I think he could be our top lineman.
“He’s athletic and it’s like having a running back play guard. Logan is thick and physical.”
And along with Thibodeau, Bladen Stankey could be a force on either side of the ball.
“He could start both ways and has the stamina to not have to take plays off,” the coach said, adding he’ll play where the most need is. “Athletically, he’s the most gifted.”
The center spot, which was held down by Blake Blomquist for the past two seasons, is up for grabs, with Aydin Gibson and a few others battling for that spot.
But the experience on the line should bode well for the talented stable of skill guys Hunsaker has returning and coming up.
Leading that is rising junior James Weaver, the likely feature back in the Wolves’ pistol Wing-T system.
While hard to think of a rising junior as a veteran, but Weaver, as a freshman, cut his teeth as a playoff call-up in the 2017 state playoff run. When Park went down with a rib injury prior to the state title game, Weaver was the fill-in, rushing six times for 40 yards.
In his first full varsity season as a sophomore, Weaver ran for 691 yards and seven scores — adding three more through the air — as the Wolves’ offense showed flashes amid periods of non-production.
“Offensively, James has to be our leader,” Hunsaker said. “We’re going to try to utilize him as much as we can.
He runs great and has vision beyond what you’d normally see from a junior running back.”
A handful of guys could see time at the opposite wing spot, including senior Bova, juniors Michael Traylor, Fagan and Blake DeJesus.
Bryson Kimp, a midseason call-up last season after Woods and fellow fullback Alec Meek went down with injuries, looks to be the clubhouse leader to start there again.
He’s got great burst, runs hard and was a bright spot last season.
The challenge, Hunsaker said, will be for Kimp to keep that fire burning and not get complacent.
If that happens, Woods is champing at the bit to get touches, the coach said.
Woods might not have the brute force that Kimp packs, but his vision and patience serves him well in the Wolves’ scheme.
About the only burning question for the Wolves is who will lead them on offense at quarterback.
Over summer, three guys — Layton Dunlap, Derek Myers and Pena — worked to separate themselves, but the battle seems to be ongoing.
Dunlap, a rising junior, took the reins of the JV squad midseason when the team lost its quarterback to grades. He’s a quick learner and will need that to run the fast-paced tempo Hunsaker prefers.
Myers returns from a year hiatus to rehab a shoulder injury suffered as a freshman playing quarterback on the JV squad.
And Pena, a backup to Brian Kilgore last season, has the arm to play the position (he’s one of the Wolves’ best on the diamond), but would be better served playing one way — on Ramage’s side of the ball.
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