ST. MONICA — After a summer of inter-squad practice, St. Monica’s new head football coach is curious to see how his team fares against a live opponent.
The Mariners head into the season opener against Animo Leadership on Saturday with a number of question marks. How will Head Coach Adam Guerra do in his first year patrolling the sidelines? Will the team’s new offense and defensive schemes work? Can junior quarterback Lukas Dretzka effectively lead a pro-style offense?
Guerra doesn’t have long to wait to get the answers to his many questions as the Mariners attempt to reach the playoffs two seasons in a row for the first time in nearly a decade.
On Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Santa Monica College’s Corsair Field, St. Monica’s progress will be a much clearer picture.
“We’ve looked really good this week,” Guerra said of the final preseason practices. “We’re right where we need to be heading going into the first week.”
Guerra, who has taken over a revitalized St. Monica team in recent years, brought a whole shipment of “new” to campus when he took the job. The former coach of powerhouse Loyola not only took over the program, he’s completely revamped it.
A new pro-style offense replaces former coach Larry Muno’s hybrid spread formation. An exotic 3-3-5 defense has been installed that has five defensive backs, one more than the norm. And due to graduation, Guerra has had to anoint a new quarterback to replace the wily Matthew Partyka, who ran what Muno called a “NASCAR” offense that was one part jail break, one part organized confusion.
The first-year coach is looking to Dretzka to lead the offense, but he does so knowing that the real strength of the offense lies with the team’s trio of running backs, led by senior Sean Martinez.
Martinez will get the starting nod, but Guerra won’t hesitate to mix things up.
“It’s on me to put them in the best positions to succeed,” he said.
The trio of running backs is rounded out by bruiser Kevin Holubowski and Nick Pegnato, a somewhat small back much like Martinez.
Another strength in Guerra’s eyes is the defensive backfield. The innovative five defensive back alignment gives players the chance to roam and play aggressively.
Of particular interest to Guerra is the emergence of Bryant De Grate, a freshman who plays well beyond his years.
“He’s a great athlete,” he said of De Grate. “He’s improved every day. He’ll bring a lot of natural athleticism.
“He’s not afraid to fly up and stick somebody, I like that in a player.”
That brand of intensity has been a hallmark of Guerra’s during his first summer of preparation. He said that he’s created a more aggressive practice style that puts an emphasis on plenty of contact. He joked that an assistant coach noted that the team has suffered more minor injuries during summer training camp. Guerra told him that’s what happens when you “get after it” in practice.
He hopes that style rubs off on his team as it attempts to further bury the school’s reputation for losing, which began to be erased during Muno’s two years leading the team. After taking over for Sean Ritter in 2009, Muno — with help from players like Sam Holguin and Partyka — helped lead the Mariners back to winning ways following three-plus seasons that saw St. Monica lose more than 30 consecutive games.
Guerra appreciates the progress made under Muno, but made it clear that a new era will begin on Saturday against Animo.
Animo’s head coach Max Stevenson, also in his first year leading the team, has heard that there’s a new guy at St. Monica, but isn’t sure how that will affect the Mariners. All Stevenson has to go on is the tape from last year’s 41-0 drubbing at the hands of Partyka and the Mariners.
Unaware of all the changes Guerra brought to campus, Stevenson is preparing to face an effective offense.
“[Guerra] might change it a little bit, but I think it will be the same philosophy,” Stevenson said. “It’s hard to change the whole offense with the personnel you have.”