It usually takes a couple of varsity seasons for high school football players to make names for themselves.
American Canyon’s team is full of fresh faces ready to do that.
Gone is quarterback Vinnie Espejo, who as a junior in 2019 made his name by filling in for injured senior Vance Eschenburg and leading the Wolves past Napa High. Gone is Ezekiel Anderson, one of the Wolves’ top tacklers and a power running back who could throw halfback passes for touchdowns with ease. Gone is Jordan Fisher, the Wolves’ top receiver and defensive back of the last two seasons who made so many momentum-swinging plays.
Bridging the past with the present is junior quarterback Kaleb Anderson. He backed up Espejo sparingly this past spring and is ready to emerge from the shadow of brother Ezekiel, now playing for NAIA powerhouse Benedictine College of Kansas.
“Kaleb’s a good leader, but he’s not ‘Zeke’s brother.’ He’s his own man,” Wolves head coach John Montante said. “Kaleb has done a really good job stepping in and owning that role (at quarterback). He showed a lot of growth in the spring, he’s really made strides this summer, he’s got a really good command of the offense, and I’m very confident in his abilities.”
Anderson — whose father, Ian, has moved up from the JV staff to assist Montante as a line coach — said he’s got a lot to learn.
“I like to think I can do mostly everything,” he said. “I’m just trying to learn the defenses, trying to break down film better. Last season was definitely a great experience for me to learn the speed of the varsity game. I like the guys we have. It’s been nice to have summer practice again and hang out with them and bond.”
Another junior also returning to the varsity is the versatile Sean Yumang, who could line up at wide receiver, running back, outside linebacker and safety.
“I love defense and making plays,” said Yumang, a three-sport athlete who also plays basketball and competes in track and field. “I knew coming up to varsity would be a different game, faster than JV. I have to level up my game so I’m just working hard every day. This year I feel like we’re a family, working hard, creating bonds with each other. Our goal is to win, but you have to have work hard at practice to get where you want to be.”
Another leader, at offensive tackle, linebacker and defensive end, is senior Orin Stockford-Reid. He also kicked a few extra points last season, but an ankle injury took away that role and also sidelined him for the last two games.
“It was fun even though I didn’t get to play the last two games, which was OK because I was still out there helping my team,” he said. “We were really blessed to have a season last year due to all the things that were happening. Now with the new variant of the COVID virus, we’re just thankful to be out here and being interviewed and everything. It gives us hope that we’ll have a normal season.”
For the juniors and seniors alike, the preseason Montante scheduled will be an eye-opener. After hosting neighboring Rodriguez this Friday, the Wolves will face three schools for the first time — Burlingame and Berkeley on the road, and visiting Livermore.
“We wanted to test our kids with our nonleague schedule, and that’s what we got,” Montante said. “Burlingame plays in a good league down on the peninsula and runs a wing-T offense that’s going to test us. Berkeley has athletes all over the place and they’re fast, and we wanted to show our kids what it takes to line up with physical teams and Livermore fits that mold.”
Stockford-Reid looks forward to facing some new competition.
“We’re going to do our studying and we’re going to come as best prepared as possible — and I hope they’re ready as well,” he said. “All the seniors this year, we’re all ready to take over for those seniors that have graduated.”
Montante has been impressed with Stockford-Reid.
“Orin does a good job,” the coach said. “He’s one of those guys who can play any of the five spots.”
Stockford-Reid said 2020 American Canyon graduate Kekoa Wilson — who is on the coaching staff with his dad, Kaleo — has given the seniors a goal.
“Koa has a lot of faith in us,” said Stockford-Reid, a 4.0 student who plans to study computer science or engineering while possibly playing football in college. “He’s teaching us that we can leave a legacy and you don’t need the same people all the time to be great. We have a lot of people who are willing to step up as leaders this year.”
Also on the offensive line is junior James Aken, whose last name is pronounced “uh-KEEN.” He also wrestled and played baseball as a freshman, but had to drop wrestling this past spring due to COVID rules. He also came up to the varsity for the football playoffs as a freshman.
“It’s hard to realize we’re getting back into it, but it’s fun,” he said. “With pads and contact, it changes the mood and everything about the sport. So I’m happy that we’re finally getting back into it. We just need to work on the basics — strength, speed, quickness — to get better as players. I think we’re going to be a whole different team this season.”
Montante has been impressed with Aken on defense.
“James is someone who’s going to be a focal point on the D-line for us. He’s been able to do some really good things,” he said. “We’re experimenting with some packages and some personnel and some platoons. We’re really excited to mix and match the skill sets of the guys we have. We want to be as fast and as physical as we can be on the defensive side.”
Another junior who is returning as a varsity starter is Kapono Liu, who could become the Wolves’ primary ball carrier.
“He had a really good summer and he’s had a really good camp so far,” Montante said. “We’ve got some other kids in the mix as well. They’re all running hard, they’re pretty strong, they’ve done a good job in the weight room and they fit our scheme for what we do, so it should be fun.
“Everybody’s been working hard and picked up our offense pretty well. We had some good 7-on-7 camps in Contra Costa County and at St. Vincent in Petaluma, and here with Bethel and Vallejo. Every time we got on the field we showed growth, and that was encouraging. They’ve improved throughout the summer. I’m really excited to see what we’ve got.”
Staff-wise, Rick Carre is back as defensive coordinator.
“He does a great job for us, the kids really respect him. He’s basically my right-hand man, so helpful,” Montante said. “Marcellus Holmes is our JV head coach. We have some returning coaches like Joe Beachum and Xavier Rivers on DBs and receivers.
“We also have one of my former college players at Gavilan, Juwan Epperson, who was a hell of a player at Pacheco High School in Los Banos. As a veer quarterback, if you think Vance (Eschenberg) was good, on my god, what Juwan did with the ball in his hands (throwing for 1,300 yards and 18 touchdowns and rushed for 379 and 9 TDs for a team lost to eventual section champ Oakdale in their 2014 Sac-Joaquin Section playoff opener).
“When he came to us at Gavilan, we weren’t really a veer offense and we had a pretty good group of quarterbacks, so he was a wide receiver when he played with us and that was a really stacked receiver corps. It was great having him there, a real please. He was one of our top recruits and we were lucky to get him, and it was so much fun to coach him. It just so happened he moved up this way and now I love working with him. It’s fun. He’s working with the wide receivers.”
John Edwards and Mark Miller round out the staff.
“There’s competition everywhere,” Montante said of the Wolves. “Iron sharpens iron, the rising tide in the harbor raises all boats. You could do good today and think you have a step up in the competition today, and tomorrow the guy you’re competing against does a better job than you, and you’ve got to elevate, and that’s where we are.
“With this squad this year, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I really enjoy coaching the teams where the ‘studs’ aren’t really evident but you have cohesion, you have execution, you have a bunch of parts that are pulling in the same direction. That’s what I think we’re building here.”
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