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San Mateo senior Line Latu will convert to quarterback this season, two years removed from All-Lake Division honors as a running back.
San Mateo’s season of injury may have been a blessing in disguise.
After several key players were relegated to the injured list in the opening weeks of the 2013 season, the most devastating loss came in the Bearcats’ bye week prior to the opening of Peninsula Athletic League Ocean Division play.
It was during practice when 2012 all-league running back Line Latu, after a prototypical end-around run, landed awkwardly on his left shoulder. While there was no immediate reaction, a few minutes later Latu walked over to tell head coach Jeff Scheller something was wrong. The next day, Latu was diagnosed with a fractured collar bone. As a result, the star running back missed four league games — a devastating loss for a team which went on to lose its last three games in Ocean Division play.
“Last year was kind of riddled with injuries,” Scheller said. “We had three or four main guys that were hurt that could have contributed. We ended up 4-6 (overall), but we played a pretty tough schedule.”
San Mateo’s silver lining was the emergence of Watson Filikitonga, who ran for 533 yards on just 95 carries to become the second Bearcats running back in as many years to earn all-league honors. Now a senior, Filikitonga is tabbed as the mainstay starting running back, which allows for Latu to assume the quarterback position for the first time in his three varsity seasons.
“He’s so comfortable; the game has slowed down for him, so he’s fine with it,” Scheller said. “He’s such a student of the game, it’s easy for him. I’m not saying it’s an easy position. I’m just saying it’s a natural transition for him.”
If his team’s health holds up this season, Scheller has an arsenal of weapons in the backfield. In addition to Filikitonga and the dual-threat Latu, he also has a pair of options returning from injury in senior Finau Hafoka — the Bearcats’ Swiss Army knife, who last year was hampered by a barrage of leg injuries — and junior Dumisani Sa-Ra, who tore his ACL in the 2013 opener and was lost for the year.
San Mateo’s split-back offense will rely on a power running game, with Latu — who hasn’t taken a snap from center since he saw occasional quarterback duty as a freshman on the frosh-soph squad — mixing in a short-range passing game to keep opposing defenses off balance.
“Part of our game is going to be short and precise,” Scheller said. “I don’t want to call it a West Coast, but it’s based on those kinds of principles, as far as timing routes. We’re not the spread team that’s going to look for the two or three windows.”
That concept could change, however, if sophomore quarterback Austin Salvail emerges as a first-string option, especially considering Latu’s versatility. Entering his first varsity season, Salvail is a prototypical pocket passer. Scheller said there was some debate as to whether Salvail should remain in the junior-varsity ranks to get more playing time. But the young gun was simply the best backup quarterback option available to the team.
“He may find his way in there,” Scheller said. “And if he could do that, then we put Latu at receiver, or at running back; we can put him wherever we want.”
With all its moving parts, San Mateo’s anchor will play on the right side of the offensive line with returning senior Memo Gomez. Last season, Gomez was one of just two Bearcats to start all 10 games at the same position. The other was now-graduated quarterback Jason Gonzalez.
Gomez is a 5-10, 210-pound right tackle who will pair with returning right guard Gabriel Chaidez (5-8, 220 pounds) and center Ivan Schaumkel (5-8, 220 pounds). Joining the mix will be a pair of newcomers on the left side in tackle Edgar Bermeo (6-2, 200 pounds) and guard George Qobti (5-11, 215 pounds).
According to Scheller, San Mateo is not going to intimidate anybody with its size. The offensive line is built around speed as opposed to power.
“Our motto is getting off the ball quick and getting into guys, and they’ve done a really good job of working towards that,” Scheller said.
On defense, San Mateo will feature a 5-2 look for the third straight season. What’s new, though, is the Bearcats’ first-year varsity defensive coordinator, Kevin Reeves. A former longtime frosh-soph head coach at Los Gatos High School, Reeves served as the San Mateo frosh-soph defensive coordinator last season.
In fact, a majority of San Mateo’s football coaches have head coaching experience. Varsity defensive line coach Adam Hyndman served as Capuchino’s head coach from 2005-08 and again from 2010-11, and was named PAL Lake Division Coach of the Year in his final season with the Mustangs. Sam Lopez is moving up to varsity assistant this year after serving as head coach of the Bearcats frosh-soph squad for the previous five seasons. Lopez last headed a varsity program at Sequoia from 2006-08.
Even varsity assistant coach of wide receivers and defensive backs, Jesse Velez, previously served as a varsity baseball manager at San Mateo and currently helms South City’s varsity baseball team.
For Scheller, the coaching mix is optimal because of the depth of experience, in addition to two of his assistants being full-time teachers — which gives the football staff a chance to talk shop on a daily basis. And he certainly doesn’t seem to be threatened by any potential too-many-chiefs scenario.
“As long as we’re successful, that’s all that I want,” Scheller said. “And I don’t have a big enough ego to really care.”
Plus, Scheller needs all the help he can get. With 41 players currently on its varsity roster, San Mateo has one of the largest squads in the PAL this season.
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