Things look and feel very different for the St. Anthony Saints this season. With only a handful of returning starters from a team that went 3-7 last year, eighth-year head coach Mario Morales has shuffled up his coaching staff and they’re ready to let this young team grow.
“We’re feeling good and excited to see the young guys play,” Morales said. “They want to show us what they can do. This is a unique group in that we don’t have a lot of four or five star guys, but these guys have a great work ethic and they’re very disciplined. We’re excited for this team because they’re just different.”
The biggest concern for the smallest high school football team in the city will once again be depth in the trenches where senior Sebastian Medina, sophomore Sam Suluai, senior Kaeli’i Tuufuli, junior Gary Jondle and senior Sam Korban will be in the rotation on the offense and defensive lines.
“We don’t have big numbers,” Morales said. “That’s just the way it goes. If we stay healthy across the board we’ll be alright.”
The group up front will be protecting a first-year staring quarterback in senior Lucas Lehmar and a trio of new running backs. Lehmar is a pitcher and shortstop on the baseball team who can move and throw on the run. Morales said that he finds the team needs and has picked up the offense very quickly.
Senior Justin Wilson, sophomore Sone Aupiu and sophomore Daniel Franklin should all see time at running back. Wilson is a 6’2” 185 pound physical runner, and Aupiu is originally a rugby player.
St. Anthony’s most dangerous offensive weapon could end up being first-year receiver Riley Jenkins. The 6’4” basketball player is on the football field for the first time and he’s already impressing his coaches during the summer.
“He’s really opened our eyes,” Morales said. “He’s very athletic, he’s got speed and he can obviously high point the ball.”
Junior Jelani Hopkins will also line up at wide receiver, while sophomore Ryan Norried, sophomore T.J. Mitchell and junior Jason Porter should be the best options in the slot. Receivers coach John Rockmore, who was most recently at Millikan, is one of four new coaches on Morales’ staff. The other coaching change will be long time assistant Fia Ili taking over the defensive playing call duties. The Saints plan on running more odd fronts with a lot of pressure packages.
Leading the way defensively will likely be defensive lineman Devante’ Pollard. The 6’2” 195-pound senior missed most of last season due to injury after he had nine sacks in a breakout sophomore campaign.
Senior linebacker Cade Ignacio is also coming off of an injury, and was just cleared for contact last week. Wilson will do double duty at outside linebacker after getting bigger and more agile on the basketball team. He too missed almost all of last season with an injury after the mandatory sit out period for transfers. The sophomore Aupiu will fill in at linebacker and in the young secondary.
“We’ve had some changes for the better and the players have responded,” Morales said. “(Ili) jumped on the opportunity (to be defensive coordinator) and I didn’t hesitate when he said he wanted to do it. He’s done a fantastic job preparing not only the players but the other coaches as well.”
St. Anthony will once again stay local for the preseason with games against Valley Christian, Warren and Wilson when the Battle For 7th Street trophy will be up for grabs again.
“Some of our guys know some of their guys, and visa versa,” Morales said while noting former Long Beach coaches Kirk Diego and Kevin McCarthy who are both at Valley Christian. “We’ll see them on the street or at the local Target or whatever. That’s a big part of it. You’re going to get a good draw as far as fans because they’re from the community. It’s exciting for the kids and it puts a lot of people in the stands… I just want our guys to have a good showing, as do they. So we’re looking forward to those games.”