BY MATT MARTZ Special to The Californian
At the heart of this year's Golden Valley Bulldogs are four qualities any football team would love to possess: Size, strength, athleticism and attitude.
Blend in leadership, character and selflessness, and that describes senior offensive linemen Carlos Bejarno, Dion Shelton, Mark Rodriquez and Moses Perez.
11 RETURNING STARTERS
3 LEAGUE TITLES
0 SECTION TITLES
Michael Buckner, sr, running back/defensive end
It's not often that the team's sack leader one year is asked to step into another leading role, but that's the task facing Buckner, a 5-9, 175-pound speed rusher who had 7.5 sacks for the Bulldogs a year ago. Now he has to step in for graduated Kwame Johnson in the backfield. If things go right for Golden Valley, he'll be spending plenty of time getting out of his own backfield, then into the opponent's backfield on defense.
Who to follow
Alex Soto, sr, QB
He punctuated an up-and-down junior season with a 506-yard, three-touchdown performance in a playoff loss to Visalia-Mount Whitney. Fittingly, though, Soto also threw four interceptions in that game. If he can channel the explosiveness and cut down on the mistakes, Soto could be one of Kern County's best quarterbacks.
Luis Matos, sr, WR/DB
The area champion and state track qualifier in the 100 meters, Matos hopes to be the latest big-play wide receiver for Golden Valley, which has had quite a few come through in Erich Smith's tenure. The other candidate is returning starter Rafael Tapia.
Mark Rodriguez, sr, OL/DL
Golden Valley doesn't have a big offensive line, but it is fast. And Rodriguez, a 240-pounder who is the biggest lineman, and three other returning starters need to find a way to help the Bulldogs gain the tough yards in the red zone, where so many promising drives ended in 2011.
With a surplus of linebackers and a dearth of linemen, the Bulldogs have scrapped their usual 5-2 defense for a 4-3 look that puts another linebacker on the field. Expect Brenden Rufus to rack up tackles in the new scheme.
In 2008, Golden Valley stunned defending section champion Bakersfield en route to a playoff season. In 2009, the Bulldogs stumbled to 3-8. They rebounded for a co-SYL title in 2010, then faltered again last year. That's no coincidence; the even years have tended to be more senior-laden within this program, and 2012 is no exception.
Departed seniors DeAndre Stallworth and Jordan Gruber combined for three return touchdowns last year, one on a fumble and two on kickoffs. The Bulldogs would love for someone else to step up and make those big plays. Sprinter Luis Matos seems like an intriguing possibility.
Erich Smith (sixth year, 24-31; eighth year overall, 31-53-2)
Louis Cervantes, defensive coordinator; Nate Odle, OL/DL; David Fanucchi, LB/special teams; Jack Melendez, DL
4-6 (3-1 SYL), lost 59-28 at Visalia-Mt. Whitney in first round of Division III playoffs
Aug. 24 at Taft
Aug. 31 at Garces
Sept. 7 Highland
Sept. 14 Wasco
Sept. 21 North
Sept. 28 at Foothill
Oct. 5 BYE
Oct. 12 West*
Oct. 19 at Mira Monte*
Oct. 26 South*
Nov. 2 at Ridgeview*
All are second-year starters who have made tremendous improvements during the offseason, but still have plenty of work to do if they want to find themselves back in the hunt for a league title in 2012.
"We've put a lot of emphasis on our offensive line, because we feel that it's an area where programs can be made offensively," coach Erich Smith said. "A good line can make any offense really go."
And that's exactly what the Bulldogs did last season, riding at times some ridiculous displays of offense, including a 506-yard, three-touchdown passing performance from quarterback Alexander Soto during the team's 59-28 loss to Visalia-Mount Whitney in the first round of the Division III section playoffs.
It was the third consecutive season the Bulldogs have tasted the agony of playoff defeat.
Putting up some serious postseason stats is always a sign of good things to come. You have to be able to move the ball in order to score points, and having a top-notch offensive line is paramount.
"The whole line has improved," Soto said. "Not only just as a primary-power blocking team, but they understand how to run-block and have really gotten their pass protection down."
That's something Soto, a senior, will rely heavily on if he wants to survive a 2012 campaign without graduated tailback Kwame Johnson, who rushed for 1,159 yards and 10 touchdowns a year ago.
However, Smith has been creative and willing to adapt, moving defensive players into key offensive roles.
Like senior defensive end-turned-running back Michael Buckner, whose biggest challenge during camp this summer was switching from a defensive to offensive mindset.
"It's my first year back playing running back since my freshman year," said Buckner, who racked up a team-high 7.5 sacks in 2011. "But I am working hard at trying to get used to it."
And while the passing game might lack last season's flair without DeAndre Stallworth and Jordan Gruber, Soto will get some help from returning starting wide receivers Rafael Tapia and Demitic Fair, along with speedster Luis Matos, a Golden Valley track standout who reached the state championships in the 100-meter dash this spring.
Defensively, the Bulldogs return one key starter in each tier, and like the offense, the unit made some big plays at times last season. But Golden Valley also allowed an average of 37.7 points per game.
The Bulldogs will lean heavily on middle linebacker Brendan Rufus and cornerback Jessie Hodges as the team transitions from a 50-front to a 4-3 in hopes of shoring up a running defense that was a major weakness a year ago.
However, Soto says the team has learned plenty from last year.
"Little mistakes become big mistakes, especially in the postseason," he said. "It magnified us as a team, but I think it matured us, too."
Smith said that will go a long way in building on last season's accomplishments -- and disappointments.
"The story about the 2012 Bulldogs is unwritten," he said.
"We are in the process of defining ourselves as a team, and I think this season will be their journey of writing their legacy."