The Vintage High football team has repeated as Vine Valley Athletic League champion and returned to the North Coast Section Division 2 semifinals with players that, other than a few guys up front, don’t exactly intimidate with their size when they take the field.

Top rushers Mauricio Castro and Pedja Zivkovic seem motivated by an inferiority complex when it comes to their physiques.

“We’re definitely not the tallest people out there, but we’re proving everyone wrong,” Castro said. “They think we’re small and we can’t do anything. But when you look at Pedja, he runs all over teams – they can’t stop him – and then when it comes to me, they can’t catch me. It’s just speed and strength all over the place.”

The 5-foot-5, 175-pound Castro leads the Crushers with 648 yards and 89 carries and has six touchdowns, while the 5-foot-7, 200-pound Zivkovic is next with 467 yards and 59 carries and has seven scores. Both are strong at hitting holes and bursting up the middle, though Castro also has a knack for turning the corner on sweeps and is probably the fastest Crusher along with fellow senior Reid McCaffrey.

“I guess that’s just the talent that I’ve had for a while and stepping on the field it really comes in handy,” he said of his speed, “ being able to run outside and just being a little bit shifty, just making moves on everybody.”

Zivkovic had a season-high 12 carries for the second game in a row, and a season-best 110 rushing yards, in last week’s 25-0 playoff-opening win over visiting Redwood. He also plays some defense, registering a sack and interception earlier in the season, and he got his first tackle last week since the third game of the season.

“Pedja is a leader because of his rapport and relationships within the team,” Vintage head coach Dylan Leach said. “The kids understand that he is a workhorse and three-year varsity player who can get the job done.”

Castro doesn’t play defense, but he is one of the team’s captains. His mellow nature off the field is in direct contrast to his fierce play on the field.

“Mauricio is a hard-nosed runner who possesses breakaway speed,” Leach said. “He also runs dive and midline exceptionally well and always seems to deliver hits when running the ball with his small frame. Pound for pound in the weight room, Mo is top three in the program and it is evident when he runs. He is the most vocal of the leadership counsel and I know he always has my back when I need communication to the team.”

Zivkovic said the team isn’t surprised it’s back where it was last year, considering all the work it’s put in since the spring.

“I think it’s all playing out how we thought was gonna play out because we put in a lot of hard work during the summer, grinding all year, and now we’re here going for the ring,” he said of what would be a first section title for the program since 1986.

Added Castro, “At the beginning of the year, all we were talking about was ‘the ring, the ring.’ But we took it one step at a time. We went from preseason to the league and now we’re here and it just it feels great to be closer to our to our goal.”

While Castro likes to run around people, Zivkovic likes to run over them by churning his legs.

“I love to hit,” he said. “If I’ve got to score, I can score. I can avoid the defender or I can hit them and still score. I’m not the fastest dude, so I’ve got to be able to break tackles. We do a lot of leg workouts, two or three days a week. It’s not my favorite thing but it helps out.”

Zivkovic is in his third varsity season with Vintage and said that with only seven losses in that time, he’s ready for the big prize.

“This is my third time in the playoffs, so I’ve definitely enjoyed my experience,” he said. “But I think this year, being my senior year, I’d be most happy to get that ring on my finger. I think the seniors have put everything on the line and juniors have our backs and are constantly making us better.”

Castro moved up from the junior varsity to the varsity for the playoffs when he was a sophomore.

“The coaches brought us up for the playoffs as sophomores and we started seeing the vision that they imagined,” he said. “We went even farther in our junior year, and now in our senior year we just want to make it all the way.”

Both are feeling 100 percent healthy, though Zivkovic had to miss some games early in the season due to injury.

“I hurt my ankle in the third game of the season and was out for three games. But now I feel all fresh, like I haven’t played all year,” he said. “So for this playoff run I’m healthy, I’m good, and I’m running the ball stronger than ever.”

Added Castro, “There’s a lot of injuries that have occurred throughout the season for everybody. But I feel that if the team sees that I’m hurt and I’m done, they’re gonna want to be done, too. So it’s just all about wanting the team to see somebody just want to keep going.”

They expect Saturday night semifinal opponent, Campolindo, to make running the ball as tough as it’s been all season.

“They definitely put a lot of people in the box, big guys, but we’re not intimidated or anything,” Castro said. “We’re ready for anything. We’re small guys, but we’re strong.”

Zivkovic, who compiled a 4.0 GPA for the first time this semester, said he wants to get a master’s degree in business administration and run a hedge fund. Castro also wants to major in business, have his own business, and get involved in the stock market.

“The coaches really put me in a tough spot because I’m not really a vocal captain, so I really had to step up in that situation,” Castro said. “I’m more of like a show-and-do kind of person, but I love the position Coach Leach put me in. It prepares me for life. It’s not always just about football, it’s about life, too.”

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Sports Reporter

Andy Wilcox is a sportswriter-photographer for the Napa Valley Register. He's had similar roles in Walnut Creek, Grass Valley, Auburn, Tracy and Patterson. He grew up in Ohio. His wife, Laura, is a pastry chef. He also enjoys playing guitar and piano.