At Rio Mesa High, pounding the pigskin is an ethos.
Young Spartans are groomed to play a physical brand of football. It’s as if Rio Mesa head coach Bob Gregorchuk ripped a page right out of the Woody Hayes/Chuck Knox/Rex Ryan offensive playbook.
Pacifica was the first Pacific View League program to feel Rio Mesa’s wrath this season.
In a league opener last weekend at RMH, the Spartans rushed for 294 yards on 25 carries to pull out a thrilling 51-42 victory.
Behind a rapidly improving offensive line, Rio Mesa (5-1 overall, 1-0 in league) has eclipsed 290 rushing yards three times in six games.
The Red and Black posted 342 yards on the ground against San Marcos and rushed for a seasonhigh 410 yards at Buena.
Both were Spartan victories.
Rio Mesa struggled to run the ball against Ventura, Santa Barbara and Dos Pueblos, but only lost to still unbeaten Ventura.
“We were kind of searching for an identity there for a while,” Gregorchuk said.
“We weren’t running the ball as well as we expected we would in the beginning. But it’s coming around, and we’re starting to get more continuity within our O-line. Things are improving.”
Senior captain Tanner Wrout— a fullback/linebacker who ranks first on the team in sacks (four), second in touchdowns (eight) and rushing yards (498), and third in tackles (47) and receptions (nine)—feels momentum swinging in the Spartans’ favor.
“We’re definitely finding our rhythm and preparing for every game like it’s a championship game,” Wrout said.
“I’m happy about the rhythm we have going on offense. The guys are playing really well, and our line is starting to come together. I have to give credit to the team because we’ve been very focused during our practices.”
Senior center Orion Awa- DuBose is a rock in the middle of Rio Mesa’s offensive line.
At 310 pounds, Awa-DuBose moves interior defensive linemen like chess pieces made of marshmallow.
Awa-DuBose is flanked by senior left tackle Nick Paredes, senior left guard Nick Gutierrez, junior right guard Chris Ranucci and sophomore right tackle Joseph Gonzalez.
Senior Christian McNair sees plenty of time at tight end to beef up certain blocking schemes.
In the Pacifica game, the guards and tackles showed an ability to switch sides of the formation without missing a beat.
Although senior quarterback Trenton Thornton hasn’t been asked to do too much early on— he averages 13 pass attempts per game—the Spartans have all the confidence in the world in their signal-caller.
In the Santa Barbara game on Sept. 23, a 16-13 Rio Mesa win, Thornton completed 14-of-25 passes for a season-high 225 yards and a touchdown.
He marched the Spartans more than 85 yards down the field late in the contest for the gamewinning score.
“In that game, that last drive was big, and we threw the ball quite a bit,” Gregorchuk said. “He can do it for us.”
All- purpose threat Jordan Nunnery, a senior who leads Rio Mesa in rushing yards (556) and touchdowns (10), may be the team’s most electrifying talent.
In addition to his role as a change-of-pace tailback and slot receiver on offense, the 5-foot-7, 175-pound Nunnery serves as a kick-return specialist and a ballhawking cornerback.
He, too, has confidence in the quarterback.
“We really started gaining confidence in (Thornton) right after the Santa Barbara game,” Nunnery said. “He came through for us, threw a bunch of clutch passes for us. He really won that game for us.
“Now, whenever we need big yardage, he comes through and our receivers make big catches. (Thornton) is a good player to have on this team.”
Defensively, Rio Mesa has shown a knack for making impact plays at critical times.
Two weeks ago, senior cornerback Darion Zimmerman corralled an interception late in the Dos Pueblos game that led to the Spartans’ game-winning field goal from close range.
Then, against Pacifica, the Tritons had the ball with a chance to take the lead and less than two minutes remaining in regulation.
Zimmerman, however, had other ideas.
He picked off a deflected pass and returned it 25 yards to pay dirt, sealing Pacifica’s fate.
“We get what we need to get to win the game,” Zimmerman said.
The Spartans’ base defense consists of three linemen, three linebackers, two strong safeties, two cornerbacks and a free safety.
The untraditional formation can make Rio Mesa vulnerable against the run but stout versus the pass.
Defensive end Nicholas Holt said Rio Mesa’s defensive success is predicated on speed, gangtackling and forcing turnovers.
“We all depend on each other,” said Holt, a junior, “like a big family.”
“It’s not one person. Everybody depends on everybody. Everybody hustles to the ball, and there are no one-man tackles. Everybody rallies to the ball— everybody.”
Rio Mesa anticipates a stiff challenge at home tonight against Oxnard. Kickoff is slated for 7.
The Yellowjackets (3-3, 1-0) have won three of their last four games.
“ Oxnard is going to be a pretty good matchup for us,” Nunnery said.
“We have a good chance of winning if we play hard like we did (against Pacifica). We can’t make mental mistakes, can’t make physical mistakes. Mentally, we have to come out ready to play.”