2019 Loyola Spring Football Preview

Could the buzz surrounding Loyola football this spring be a harbinger of a dramatic upward trend for a program that has played in 12 CIF Southern Section Division I title games, won a National Championship, finished as the number two ranked team in the nation, had ten grid standouts acclaimed CIF Large Schools Player-of-the-Year, appeared in the state top-ten rankings with regularity, sent hundreds of players to the collegiate ranks and currently has multiple former players competing in the National Football League? Based on the 2019 squad's work to date, an affirmative answer could be coming in August. 

New head coach DREW CASANI ‘91, himself a former Loyola star (as an inside linebacker in 1990, he was named the CIF Southern Section Div. I Defensive Player-of-the-Year after the Cubs won their fourth of six D-I crowns), has brought palpable new energy and assembled an impressive staff of assistant coaches to aid in his reconstruction project which is focused on returning Loyola to its historical place among the top prep programs in the Golden State.

While depth is an issue, there appear to be enough pieces to the puzzle-some of which may prove to be priceless-for the 2019 Cubs to surprise the cognoscenti of the prep football world this fall. For that to happen, several components of Casani’s inaugural squad must perform at markedly improved levels. 

The unit most in need of upgrade is the offensive line, where things are trending in a positive direction. The defensive backfield was another position group which needed to raise the bar, and new secondary coach JERRY PHILLIPS has done an excellent job of ratcheting up the level of play of the defensive backs.   

The platoon which stands out as potentially elite is the wide receiver corps, which is coached by the PAC-12’s (Washington State) all-time leading pass catcher, GABE MARKS. First-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach MATTHEW HATCHETTE has the offense looking polished and fluid.

Senior TOMMY HATTON (6-1, 201) has made huge strides at the quarterback position. In addition to his strong arm and accuracy, Hatton brings Important intangibles to his game, the most noteworthy of which are leadership skills.

Hatton has a veritable wealth of riches in a group of exceptionally talented wide receivers. The Co-MVPs of last fall’s Mission League champion freshman team, JACOBY “CO” KELLY (6-1, 174) and PETE VANIS (5-10, 166) will form a sophomore receiving duo that will be hard to match by any sophomore pair in the Southland. Suffice to say, each is a brilliant receiver, and both possess a rare level of athleticism. Kelly just received his first major scholarship offer from Florida Atlantic University. It is believed he is the first Loyola player to be offered a scholarship as a freshman. Junior CEYAIR WRIGHT (6-0, 173) is a burner (10.84 100m and 20.74 200m this spring) who will see most of his playing time in the secondary, but will also strike fear into opposing defensive backfields whenever he lines up on the offensive side of the ball. Junior ALEX GIRALDO (5-10, 165) is another wide receiver with great hands who consistently gets behind the defense with sizzling speed. He missed his sophomore year because of injury, but his prodigious talent will combine with that of the other receivers to form a great group. Senior MICHAEL JONES (5-11, 170) is also coming on strong. 

Tight ends coach JORGE TORRES ‘99 has a pair of good ones. Senior BRENDAN PERNECKY (6-3, 241) is a gifted athlete who will also be targeted with success. Sophomore tight end JOE TAYLOR (6-2, 185) is fast and tough. 

Last season’s freshman team was one of the school’s all-time best. The squad fielded uncommon talent in virtually every position group. The two prime time ball carriers for the freshman title team were HARRISON ALLEN (5-9, 175) and TAHJ OWENS (5-9, 174). Both are fast, dynamic running backs, whose varsity debuts are expected to draw rave reviews. Running backs coach JOE VIVO ‘96 is looking forward to big production from that talented pair. 

The position group, under the tutelage of coaches RICK PEDROARIAS ‘84 and JOE MURRAY ‘78, which must perform at a significantly higher level this season is the offensive line, which brings back three seniors who started multiple games last season. The veterans are guard SAM DOMINGUEZ (6-2, 247), center NICK ANDERSON (6-0, 257) and tackle SHANE STROYKE (6-4, 304). Sophomore SAM YOON (6-4, 231) is currently the leader in the competition for the left tackle post. Senior HUNTER SAMUELSON  (6-4, 258) is making a run at left guard.

The defense, under the direction of defensive coordinator MIKE GILHOOLY ‘88, has a chance to be much improved. Two players who bring real mean streaks and leadership qualities to the ‘Wolfpack’ are senior outside linebacker CARTER LINK (6-1, 208) and senior inside linebacker STEVEN ARELLANO (5-11, 215). Both are hitters who set the tone, and each brings real passion and leadership qualities to the Cub stop unit. Senior DOMINIC BELISLE (6-1, 191) is a very athletic outside linebacker with ball hawking skills. He has been heralded as one of the most improved returnees. Senior inside linebacker NIKKO GONZALEZ (6-2, 210) is expected to contribute to the sound of thunder in the box.

Defensive line coaches ELIC MAHONE and CHRISTIAN GASCOU ‘93 are happy with the progress thus far of a group of rugged athletes in the trenches. Senior defensive tackle BARRET KELLY (6-1, 226) is the strongest member of the team-he lifts well over 1,400 pounds combined in the power clean, bench press, squat and dead lift. In addition to his impressive strength, Kelly is cat quick. Another weight room warrior who will wreak havoc on the defensive front is senior nose guard MARIANO UY (5-9, 226).  There is competition for the other tackle position. SAM DOMINGUEZ could see double duty, but junior HENRY KENNEDY (6-2, 242) possesses an impressive skill set.

Leading the way in the secondary at the corners are juniors CEYAIR WRIGHT and junior ZAKHARI SPEARS (6-3, 182). Wright currently has nine scholarship offers from FBS programs (Arizona, Arizona State, BYU, Cal, Illinois, Nevada. Ole Miss, Oregon and Utah). Spears has two offers thus far (Arizona State and Utah). You can bet those two will cover like blankets. Also in the mix at corner are senior EVAN THOMAS  (5-11, 170) and TAHJ OWENS.

The safety positions will be manned by a trio of hard-nosed, focused seniors, BLAKE NEITHART (5-9, 172), CHAD BAILEY (5-11, 182) and FINN O’ROURKE (5-11, 178).

Senior DIEGO BURGOS (5-11, 185) will handle the kicking duties.

In terms of preparation going into spring competition this Loyola team is way ahead of recent squads. That is in large measure the result of the voluntary practices that Casani instituted in January.

Things are looking up in Cubville. If the leaders continue to demand maximum effort from their teammates, and the weight room work ratchets up to the next level, Loyola just may surprise this fall.