‘Independent’ Badgers prepare for new era of football

The high level of energy, intensity and a fair amount of attitude exhibited at the June 23 three-school (Yosemite, Sierra, Mariposa) passing scrimmage is proof football is alive and well in the Mountain Area.

Held on the Yosemite High practice field before about 100 onlookers, the non-contact scrimmage featured the team’s quarterbacks and receivers going against linebackers, safeties and defensive backs.

Lineman from the three schools competed against each other in strength contests including tire flipping, blocking sled races, and tug-of-wars.

“It was apparent immediately that our strength and conditioning program is working as our players were quicker and more athletic,” said JD Burnett, Yosemite’s second-year head coach. “The off season hard work also gave our players some much needed confidence. I was happy to see our lineman dominate today.”

This past school year, Burnett brought back the seventh period strength and conditioning class to allow players to train year-round.

“Off season training is what separates the good teams from the average, and the seventh period strength and conditioning program was once an integral part of the Badger program,” Burnett said.

New beginning for Yosemite

The Yosemite High football program has struggled of late, fielding 16 to 24 players the last four seasons while compiling a 1-38 record. But Burnett and his 35 varsity players are confident things are about to change in Badger Country.

Helping with the new-found optimism is the decision the school made to exit from the highly competitive North Sequoia League, and play as an independent this season. That will pit Yosemite, with about 700 students, against smaller schools including LeGrand (470 students), Laton (200), Parlier (780) and Caruthers (575).

“As the enrollment of Yosemite High has been reduced by half, the NSL has continued to be dominant, with Valley Champions and state contenders coming out of this physical league every year,” Burnett said. “It was no longer safe for us to compete against these much larger and physical teams. We now have a schedule of similar-sized schools that we feel we can safely compete against every Friday night, and will remain eligible for playoffs.”

Burnett said the only team from last year’s schedule is rival Sierra, and the Badgers will renew a rivalry with Mariposa.

“We will also start a new rivalry with the ‘Purple Ponies’ of Minarets,” Burnett said.

Impact players

The list of Yosemite impact players this season starts with returning third-year quarterback and defensive back Tristan Eames, at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds. Last year Eames was named second team all NSL at quarterback after averaging 115 yards passing per game.

“Tristan has stepped up as our team leader,” Burnett said. “He has a tremendous work ethic and his determination for success is infectious. Tristan has improved his speed and agility as well as his fundamentals of the game.”

Burnett said junior offensive guard/linebacker Peter Martinez (6-foot-1, 205 pounds), playing just his second year of football, is an “extremely strong and explosive athlete,” who runs a 4.65 40-yard dash and power cleans 270 pounds in the weight room.

“Players look to him for leadership through his work ethic and positive behavior on and off the field,” Burnett added.

Martinez will make some holes for junior speedster running back Jessie De La Cruz (5-foot-8, 155 pounds), who returns for his third season playing varsity after rushing for 800 yards last season as a sophomore. He was an honorable mention for NSL all league selections last season.

Burnett said sophomore nose guard/linebacker Dylan De La Cruz (5-foot-8, 190 pounds) is a tough, hard nosed player with a great attitude.

“I expect Dylan to have a huge year as an underclassman,” Burnett said.

At 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, junior Cannon Eames returns for his second year on varsity as a receiver and defensive back. Last season he was named to the NSL all league second team with 394 receiving yards and seven touchdowns.

Burnett said Cannon has improved his technique and work ethic in the weight room and that is translating onto the field.

“Cannon catches everything thrown in his direction,” Burnett said. “His improved route running, and chemistry with his brother (QB Tristan) is going to make him difficult to stop. Every time we needed a big play in our summer passing tournaments, he has stepped up and delivered.”

Another receiver the coach is counting on is 5-foot-7, 150 pound senior Johnny “Kid Dynamite” Varian. Burnett calls Varian one of the smallest and most talented athletes on the field.

“He plays fearless and with everything he has inside of him,” Burnett said. “He has great instincts for the ball when it is in the air. He caught 10 touchdown passes in a two-day passing tournament this summer. I love coaching the undersized player who out-wills everyone. It’s one of my favorite parts of coaching this great game.”

Other players expecting to have a positive impact this season are senior Kevin Bulawsky (6-foot-4, 225 pounds), a tight end and defensive tackle who was named to the NSL all league second team last season, junior Ty Peterson (6-foot-1, 175 pounds), a defensive back and offensive guard who was named all league honorable mention last season as a sophomore, junior slot receiver/running back Junior Austen Burgeno (5-foot-8, 155 pounds), and junior linebacker/running back Luke Howell (5-foot-6, 160 pounds).

Mariposa game Sept. 16

An old rivalry with Mariposa will be renewed on Sept. 16, in the Gold Nugget Bowl at the Mariposa Fairgrounds.

The teams first played in 1976, the year Yosemite opened. It’s been 24 years since the Badgers and Grizzlies played in 1992.

“From what I saw out there during the 7-on-7 passing scrimmage and lineman competition, I believe our week three game against the Badgers is going to be a battle,” said Mariposa head coach Ryan Oliphant. “They appear to be a fast and physical team. They have some athletes out at the skill positions.”

Oliphant feels Burnett has done a fine job so far in turning around the Yosemite program.

“(Burnett’s) experience and leadership showed out there through his players,” Oliphant said. “They will be a solid team this year and it should be a fun game to watch when we meet up at the Gold Bowl. It just feels like a natural rivalry with YHS being the closest school to us.”

Mariposa finished the season last year with an overall 5-5 record, but lost some key players to graduation.

“For that being our first 7-on-7 game of the summer I thought we did pretty well,” Oliphant said. “I think my players had an initial shock of the speed and physicality of 7-on-7’s but once they got past that we got better as a team.”

Mariposa players expected to make big impacts this season include quarterback Colton Weidner and running back Josh Land.

Just a sophomore, the 6-foot-2, 160 pound Weidner is an excellent athlete according to Oliphant. Land is small at 5-foot-5, 135 pounds, but Oliphant said the senior is pound-for-pound the strongest player on the team. He was a 1,000-yard rusher last season as a junior.

“Colton has studied his position by watching film and studying the playbook over the off season,” Oliphant said. “He’s a solid young man and has a bright future with us if he keeps working hard.”

One big target for Weidner will be 6-foot-3, 180 pound sophomore Aleks Radonic.

“Aleks is tall an still a little raw, but he has shown above average catching ability, and we feel has a lot of potential,” Oliphant said.

The Grizzly offensive line will be lead by 5-foot-11, 225 pound senior Jacob Leuchner. “Jacob was one of our best blockers last season and I look to him to be a solid role model to some of our younger players,” Oliphant said.

“We are a young team and we still have to figure some things out and have a long way to go, but I’ve been encouraged with what I have seen so far,” Oliphant added. “We have been getting better. I expect us to compete for a league title.”

The last regular game of the season for the Badgers will be against Sierra on Nov. 4 at Badger Stadium.

Sierra Coach Kenny Rose took over the team mid-season last year and has a new staff of assistants this year.

The team was 2-7 last season with the two wins coming against Yosemite (49-33) and Laton (15-12). Rose’s plan is to start this season with a win and then play “one game at a time.”

Team impact players include 6-foot-2, 190 pound junior quarterback/safety Tristan Wilson, 5-foot-10, 175 pound junior running back/corner back Shane Maldanado, and 6-foot, 200 pound senior running back/linebacker Chris Orange.