Last season, Berkeley High was within 24 minutes of winning the Alameda-Contra Costa Athletic League title. Tied 7-7 at halftime of the regular-season finale against Pinole Valley, the Yellowjackets collapsed and ended up losing 35-14. This year, the Jackets hope they will have the staying power to outlast the Spartans and several other contenders.
Berkeley is the league’s deepest team, with backups that could start at most other ACCAL schools at nearly every skill position. The only real questionmark, however, comes at the most important position – quarterback.
The battle to take snaps for Berkeley is a two-way battle between juniors Jeff Spellman and Foster Goree. Spellman, a transfer from Bishop O’Dowd High in Oakland, is the more polished of the two, while Goree is more familiar with the Berkeley offensive system after starting for the junior varsity last season. Goree looked fairly impressive during a scrimmage last week, while Spellman sat out as he waited for his eligibility to be confirmed, which it was late this week.
While the two quarterbacks are similar in athletic ability and neither has stepped forward to claim the starting job yet, there are no plans to play both on a regular basis. Head coach Matt Bissell and offensive coordinator Clarence Johnson agree that a platoon system isn’t the ideal situation when it comes to running a team.
“We really want to use one guy,” Johnson said. “That’s the one position where you can’t split time. It’s not good for either kid, and it’s not good for the team.”
Whoever ends up behind center will have a plethora of weapons to utilize. The Yellowjackets are stacked at tailback once again, with Craig Hollis ready to step in as the main runner after backing up 1,000-yard rusher Germaine Baird last season. But Chris Watson is another talented back and could force his way into the lineup at some point this season. Hollis averaged 10 yards per carry last season but must prove he can be the feature back behind a line anchored by twins Anthony and Ray Cole.
Berkeley also boasts great talent at wide receiver. Senior Sean Young averaged more than 25 yards per catch last season as the main deep threat. Young has committed to play at Cal next season and is looking to have a big year before heading east to Memorial Stadium. But Young will have to do more than just run down the sidelines this season, as neither quarterback has the arm strength of last year’s starter, Raymond Pinkston. Both Young and fellow wideout Roberto McBean will have to work on crossing routes in order o get the ball on a regular basis.
One benefit of Berkeley’s huge student body is having a lot of student bodies in uniform. Berkeley is one of the few teams that doesn’t need to have players going both ways, giving the Jackets an advantage in both fatigue and practice time. The only player who will start on both sides of the ball is Rodny Jones, a 6-foot-5 athlete who will see time at both tight end and defensive end. Jones has the potential to be a big factor on offense as an underneath option to Young and McBean, as does senior Robert Hunter-Ford, who will also play defensive end. Both have the physical talent to be impact players, and coaches say they have improved their mental games since last season.
“I see good things happening with those guys,” Bissell said. “Rob has shown that he now has the mental aspect of being a good player. As long as he’s motivated he’ll be a force for us.”
The heart of the Berkeley defense will be middle linebacker Owen Goldstrom, a first-team all-league pick last season along with defensive tackle Myron Seals. If 290-pound tackle Jamal Lucas-Johnson can stay healthy this season, the Jackets will be solid up the middle.
The talent just keeps on coming in the secondary, headed by cornerback Justin Cain. If Spellman doesn’t end up as the quarterback, he will see time at safety. With eight returning starters, Bissell is counting on the defense to carry the offense while the quarterback situation works itself out.
Bissell will try to avoid the academic pitfalls of last season as the Jackets lost several key starters for the Pinole Valley game due to grades. As a first-year coach he went through some growing pains while learning the ins and outs of the system, and he expects this year’s team to be more successful the in the classroom. But a lot of that is up to the players.
“We’re talking about a situation where we’re trying to reverse a trend that’s been growing for a while,” Bissell said. “There’s a culture where mediocrity in the classroom is acceptable. We’re trying to instill the idea that striving for a C is not acceptable.”
Even if all the players stay eligible, it won’t be easy to take down Pinole Valley, which has claimed three league titles in a row. Although stud running back DeAndre McFarland is gone, the Spartans are loaded once again with a huge offensive line and big-play receiver Thomas DeCoud. Pinole Valley will be dealing with a coaching change, as Steve Alameda takes over for longtime head man Jim Erickson. El Cerrito and De Anza also return some talented players, while Alameda, Encinal and newcomer Hercules will try to climb into the top of the standings.
“Pinole Valley is the top dog,” Bissell said. “The championship goes through them until somebody beats them.”
Berkeley will only play nine games this season, as the scheduled season opener against Mission San Jose was canceled when the school decided to disband its varsity program.