The Santa Clara Bruins football team made the playoffs for the second-straight season in 2018, the first under Head Coach Burt Codera. With injuries leaving the team with limited options at quarterback, coach Codera took a calculated risk in moving play-making wide receiver Nick Garcia to quarterback. Despite some early season struggles, the gamble worked as Garcia found a rhythm and helped lead the Bruins to a share of first-place in the El Camino league. Santa Clara finished in a three-way tie with Mountain View and Saratoga at 5-1. Unfortunately for the Bruins, even with a worse point differential than the Spartans and Falcons, they were forced by Santa Clara Valley Athletic League (SCVAL) bylaws to move up into the vaunted De Anza division. Last year, the Bruins lost to De Anza league Champion Wilcox 63-7.
“That was our reward,” chuckled coach Codera with a wry smile after a Bruins’ August practice. “We’re in the De Anza now.”
While the Bruins face an uphill battle moving up into the tougher division, that doesn’t mean the team isn’t without confidence. Coming off a strong season last year, two-way senior Bailey Mungaray, who plays both defensive back and wide receiver, is eager to play at the higher level.
“I’m really excited for this season coming up. I’m really happy we got put back in D1,” said Mungaray. “We can really show what we can do, we got put back on the high stage and given another chance. I’m just hoping to be able to leave this last year with the team being able to stay in this D1 league. I’m feeling really good about this season.”
With Garcia and last year’s top receiver Richard Corona having graduated, it will be up to Mungaray and fellow senior Joseph Hernandez (aka Jojo) to pick up the slack in the passing game.
“Richard was a really good wide receiver to play under for a few years here. Jojo and I learned a lot of good things from Richard, a lot of good release moves, route moves,” remarked Mungaray on his former teammate. “I’m excited to show what we learned over those years. In general, Jojo and I have to pick up the slack because losing Nick and Richard were two big offensive threats last year.”
While Santa Clara lost their two biggest offensive contributors a year ago, they return the majority of their standout defensive players. In addition to Mungaray and Hernandez playing both ways, the Bruins also feature linebacker Alan Tran and linebacker/defensive end hybrid Gabe Lopez as impact players on defense. Tran came up with a huge forced fumble in last year’s league opener at Levi’s Stadium and Lopez was the best pass rusher on the field throughout the season. Both Tran and Lopez are excited about what the team can do this season.
“We’re looking pretty good right now, we’re looking definitely a lot better right now than we did last year,” remarked Lopez on the preseason practices. “Last year, we weren’t as ready as we are now. We are practicing a lot more stuff, we’re getting a lot more done. We have a lot of returners from last year, our core from my freshman year, we are still all here, and I think we can make a run this year.”
“So far practices are going well, real smooth actually,” echoed Tran. “We are bonding together and having all-around good practices. We have connections with the coaches already from last year, so everything is going smoother. Everybody from defense is basically returning this year and we had a real physical defense last year. So hopefully no injuries and we have a good season all-around.”
While the Bruins return most of their underclassmen defenders from last year, one big loss is two-way linebacker and tailback Bryan Escorza who transferred over to Wilcox. Escorza was a key fixture in the Bruins’ ground game a year ago. Without him, Santa Clara will have to lean even more on returning tailbacks Isiah Ketton and Geary Brown.
As for quarterback, it appears as if junior Rocco Rolih has the inside track to be the starter, but coach Codera wouldn’t commit to announcing a starter before the season.
“Rocco is young and inexperienced at the varsity level, but he’s a fiery dude, who works hard,” noted the Head Coach. “Practices are one thing, but games are a whole different beast so it’s still an open competition for us right now. Just like last year we are still going to do whatever we can to put our players in the best position to win. If he wins the job, he wins the job and if not it is what it is.”
As for his own development as a first-year Head Coach, Codera was honest in his own assessment looking back at year one and heading into year two.
“Year one was definitely a learning curve for me, I was definitely out of my comfort zone at times,” admitted coach Codera. “It was good for me because I got to grow as a person, as a coach. I definitely feel a lot more comfortable going into this year. Nothing is brand new, I got my feet wet with everything last year.”
Santa Clara will kick off the season on Friday, Aug. 30 when they host Soquel. The Bruins do have an opportunity to get some early season confidence going before facing the juggernaut of the De Anza league schedule. The Bruins will play four non-league games before the league season starts, including games against Los Altos, whom they beat 27-0 last season, and Menlo School, to whom they lost 35-26. When the league season finally opens up on Sept. 27, the Bruins will travel to Fremont to face a Firebirds team whom they beat in a high-scoring showdown two years ago, 63-57.
It is certainly within the realm of possibilities that the Bruins could enter the Palo Alto game on Oct. 4 with a 4-1 or even 5-0 record. Palo Alto’s lone league loss in De Anza last year came against Wilcox, in a 35-21 final. Entering that game with some wins under their belt and a high level of confidence will be key if Santa Clara wants to turn some heads and pull off some upsets within the De Anza division this season.