Menlo-Atherton football has proven to be a perennial playoff power under fifth-year head coach Sione Taufoou.
The Bears have advanced to the postseason in each of their previous four years. Taufoou, however, is still looking to cement his legacy. He has gotten close to bringing Menlo-Atherton its third all-time Central Coast Section title; in 2011, the Bears advanced to the Division I championship game, only to fall to Serra.
Heading into the new season, Taufoou’s challenge will be getting the most out of a 28-player roster. The talent is there, but obviously far removed from the personnel of three seasons ago. But they should still be one of the frontrunners in the Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division to put pressure on reigning league champion Terra Nova.
“They’ve had their ups and downs,” Taufoou said of parsing together a new starting lineup. “We’ve been solid. We’re looking for some greatness, but we’ve been solid.”
With new starters at most of the skill positions, M-A will rely on its wealth of experience on the offensive line to pave the way to greatness. The Bears’ only returning All-League player is second-year junior Bryce Rodgers, a 6-2, 230-pound guard. He is complimented by third-year senior center Api Mane and senior tackle Casey Gernaat. All will be tasked with playing the defensive line as well. And all were integral to M-A advancing to the CCS Division II semifinals last season.
Despite graduating the team’s top rusher in tailback Isiah Nash — last year the senior ran for over 1,300 yards — the Bears’ bread-and-butter will continue to be the run game, according to Taufoou.
“I think the run game is where we live,” he said.
It’s going to be interesting to see how that comes to fruition. The four running backs ticketed for a bulk of the action had 18 total carries last season. Seventeen of those carries went to Skyler Lautalo, who totaled 87 yards. But with senior Tyrique Johnson at halfback and first-year sophomore Stavro Papadakis at fullback, the Bears expect to run a pro-style offense based on power and some play-action looks.
“We’re going to go out there and compete and execute to the best of our ability,” Taufoou said. “Then we’ll be OK.”
Slated to helm the offense in first-year junior quarterback Robby Beardsley, and don’t be surprised if the passing game proves to be an integral dynamic of the offensive scheme this season. At 6-1, 185 pounds, Beardsley is a prototypical pocket passer who competed for the varsity job at the beginning of last season with Brian Keare; the latter went on to throw for 2,361 yards in his senior campaign.
That doesn’t take anything away from Beardsley though, who has demonstrated a born-to-lead persona since the day he stepped between the white lines at M-A, according to Taufoou.
“He’s an extremely smart kid. He’s a great leader. He understands our offense,” Taufoou said. “He’s the kind of a dude everyone follows. He’s done a good job working his tail off the last couple years, so I’m looking forward to his first start at varsity.”
And he brings a strong but steady arm to utilize a trio of mainstay wide receivers.
“He can take the top off if needed but he also understands to take what’s given and to throw the ball where it needs to go,” Taufoou said.
Beardsley should have plenty of targets to choose from. Newcomer Chase DelRosso should be the most intriguing if he lives up to Taufoou’s billing as having the most explosive speed in the mix. With returners Ben Stanley at 5-10, and Cole Shaffer at 5-9, it leaves DelRosso at 5-11 with the tallest stature of the bunch. But if they work in symphony as Taufoou expects, they should play to par with any 6-foot-plus trio in the PAL.
“I think that whole group can be big-play guys,” Taufoou said. “But it’s really catching the ball, running good routes, blocking really, really well.”
On defense, perhaps the Bears’ biggest addition is assistant coach Jason Hardy. After serving as defensive coordinator of the frosh-soph squad last season, Hardy will be charged with taking over the varsity post. But boy does he have his work cut out for him. M-A will see as many as nine new starting defenders this season, many of whom will be relied upon as two-way players.
“Bend but don’t break,” Taufoou said in describing his defense of a year ago. “They played really well at times. I think we were really mature last year. They were an older team and kids knew what to do. This year’s group is a different skill set. But they can play. They’re ready to believe in themselves and go to work.”
The nucleus of the linebacker corps will be Papadakis and another first-year newcomer Jack Gray.
Gray is one of the few players who will primarily play one side of the ball. Senior defensive tackle Laki Fonua — his first name is pronounced “lucky” — lists as a tight end, but will likely see a vast majority of time as a defender.
Despite the low numbers with just 28 players on roster, Taufoou expects to keep his perfect playoff record in tact.
“I kind of feel like’s M-A’s diversity, and we’re a big enough school, we’ll get enough talent that we should be in the playoffs every year. I really believe that,” Taufoou said.
M-A will have a fantastic Week 3 challenge in non-league play, hosting Los Gatos on Sept. 12. It was Los Gatos who eliminated M-A from the CCS Division II playoffs with a 35-6 triumph last year. In fact, Los Gatos went on to win the D-II title, defeating Taufoou’s alma mater St. Francis 31-14 in the championship game.
Coach: Sione Taufoou
2013 record: 3-2 Bay
Division, 8-4 overall
Key returners: Bryce Rodgers (jr., OL/DL); Api Mane (sr., OL/DL); Casey Gernaat (sr., OL/DL); Tyrique Johnson (sr., RB/DB); Skyler Lautalo (jr., RB/LB); Cole Shaffer (sr., WR/DB); Ben Stanley (jr., WR/DB); Sivi Filiai, (sr., RB/DB); Laki Fonua (sr., TE/DL)
Key newcomers: Robby Beardsley (jr., QB); Chase DelRosso (jr., WR/DB); Stavro Papadakis (soph., RB/LB); Marcus Moimoi (jr., RB/DB); Chase DelRosso (jr., WR/DB); Jack Gray (jr., LB)
2014 schedule (home games in CAPS): Sept. 5, @ Campolindo, 7 p.m.; Sept. 12, LOS GATOS, 3:30 p.m.; Sept. 20, @ Riordan, 1 p.m.; Sept. 26, @ Monterey, 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 10, BURLINGAME, 7 p.m.; Oct. 17, SEQUOIA, 7 p.m.; Oct. 24, @ Menlo, 3 p.m.; Oct. 31, @ Sacred Heart Prep, 3 p.m.; Nov. 7, TERRA NOVA, 7 p.m.; Nov. 14, WOODSIDE, 7 p.m.