By Jeremy Balan
It’s hard to say just how good Zach Masoli could have been on the Riordan High School football team last season.
As a sophomore, most of his athletic ability on the field was shown scrambling, but not by choice.
He was running for his life.
The Crusaders had the worst offensive line in the West Catholic Athletic League last season and opponents exposed that weakness, putting Masoli under constant pressure.
Protecting him and giving him time to make plays is of the utmost importance for the Crusaders this season.
“It starts up front,” said second-year Riordan head coach Rich Sweeney. “That will help Zach [and] that will help our running game. It’s part of the excitement around here.”
Although Sweeney admits the line is a work in progress, the group will be better, led by senior Nicholas Reese, a 6-foot-5, 260-pound left tackle.
“Our whole team has just worked harder,” Reese said. “We’ve all lifted, we’ve all ran, we’ve all worked harder than we ever had before. We just want it to pay off.”
Add new offensive line coach A.J. Poti, who played at Penn State and is coming off a season with the San Jose SaberCats of the Arena Football League, and there is a reason for optimism.
“The majority of these kids are juniors and there are five or six really solid players,” Poti said. “As far as protecting our talent, I think they’ll do a lot better than last year.”
Even with pressure coming after nearly every snap last season, Masoli was still able to throw for 1,205 yards, nine touchdowns and just three interceptions, and was named the WCAL’s Sophomore of the Year.
Already visibly bigger than last season, Masoli has taken a leadership role on an offense that still has plenty to prove.
“Whether it’s fair or not, that is what comes with the quarterback position,” Sweeney said of Masoli’s leadership expectations. “He’s an extremely outstanding athlete and he has all the tools, but I explained to him that he needs to be the Andrew Luck of Riordan football. That is the growth and maturity needed at the quarterback position.”
With protection and a few weapons, like 6-foot-5 junior tight end Robert Valencia, Masoli’s numbers could spike significantly, and he’s already seen signs of improvement.
“We went to a camp at San Jose State and the offensive line really protected me,” Masoli said. “I felt like I was Drew Brees or Peyton Manning, just sitting back there with all the time in the world. They’re going to hold their own against WCAL schools.”
Another issue for the Crusaders last season was the defense, which allowed 42.6 points per game in WCAL play.
The strength of the defense will again be senior linebacker Mark Mulligan, who finished third in the league in total tackles (116) in his junior season.
Mulligan will also be a part of an inexperienced running back committee. Senior Trey Gunter is the lead returning rusher, with 60 yards on 23 carries last season and Masoli is second with 55 yards on 88 carries.
“He’s an excellent athlete,” Sweeney said of Mulligan. “Last year, I think he played four sports. He even tried to mix in lacrosse the same time he was running track. He’s a physical player and he runs well. I see him having a huge senior season.”
But Mulligan’s workload also speaks to Riordan’s most significant obstacle — depth in a league that is arguably the deepest in Northern California.
Riordan will suit up between 30-35 varsity players this season to go against WCAL squads that regularly feature 50 or more. St. Francis led the league with 65 rostered players last season, while the Crusaders had 37.
“Our numbers aren’t very good again,” Sweeney said. “We’ll be in the low 30s for the varsity and in the mid 20s for the [junior varsity], which isn’t enough, but we have quality kids who are working really hard right now. That’s where we are right now.”
The changes at Riordan, not just in football, can’t be ignored, but a rebuilding process in the WCAL does not come easily. Finding a win in WCAL, however, for a team that was winless and outscored 298-65 in league play last season, may also be farther in the horizon.
“It’s all a growing process,” Masoli said. “Riordan, as a whole high school, we’re all taking that seriously. As a school, in football, in sports, in everything.”
2012 Schedule – WCAL games in bold
Week 0: Sat. 9/1 – @ Lincoln, 2 p.m.
Week 1: Sat. 9/8 – vs. St. Mary’s (Berkeley), 1 p.m.
Week 2: Sat. 9/15 – vs. Mission, 1 p.m.
Week 3: (Bye)
Week 4: Fri. 9/28 – @ Bellarmine (San Jose) @ San Jose City College, 7 p.m.
Week 5: Fri. 10/5 – @ Serra (San Mateo), 7 p.m.
Week 6: Sat. 10/13 – vs. Mitty (San Jose), 1 p.m.
Week 7: Sat. 10/20 – vs. St. Ignatius, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Fri. 10/26 – @ St. Francis (Mountain View), 7:30 p.m.
Week 9: Fri. 11/2 – vs. Sacred Heart Cathedral @ Kezar Stadium, 7 p.m.
Week 10: Sat. 11/10 – vs. Valley Christian (San Jose), 1 p.m.