By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

  • Santa Rosa Junior College’s Terrance Drew tries to push past the defense during practice, Tuesday, September 2, 2014. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

Tasting postseason football for the first season in five campaigns, Santa Rosa Junior College is hungry to return with a stronger, deeper squad.

Bolstered by strong recruiting and focusing on staying healthy, Santa Rosa seeks a return to the ranks of Northern California’s top teams.

A defense anchored by a sturdy front and athletic linebackers should limit the high scoring offenses Santa Rosa faces.

On offense, Santa Rosa must make the most of a talented receiving corps while working in a promising group of running backs.

“This year we’re really confident,” said Vaimaa Taito, an anchor at linebacker. “We play a tough schedule. But we’re a lot more sure of ourselves.”

A source for such optimism is improved conditioning and another offseason under second-year coach Lenny Wagner.

“The emphasis this year is being a lot more prepared than any team we play,” said quarterback Christian McAlvain.

The first test comes Saturday at Delta College, in Stockton.

Winning nonleague games is key to reaching the postseason because the Nor Cal League is among the toughest in the California Community College Athletic Association. Santa Rosa won four of its six games last season in nonleague play.

Last year culminated in a bowl appearance. While the Bear Cubs lost, returning to the postseason was a good start for head coach Lenny Wagner and his staff. Expectations are higher this season.

“The outlook is good. The guys are working really hard,” Wagner said.

Battles for starting spots and moving up the depth chart have been spirited.

With only five returning starters, all on defense, Santa Rosa has many holes to fill.

Santa Rosa is strongest where there is experience. Defense helps define Santa Rosa this season more than any in recent memory.

On the defensive line, Matt Hunn, out of Rancho Cotate, and Nick Kristofors, from San Marin High, anchor a line with both size and speed.

Leading the linebackers are Taito from Rancho Cotate, who was all-conference, and Bryan Stansbury, another returning ball hawk.

“We’re solid. We have a lot of threats. We have a lot of depth as well,” Taito said. “Our goal is to limit scoring.”

Keeping the Bear Cubs close in games allows the offense to find its footing.

An improving line of blockers is a start. Depth again should help coaches find good rotations to keep players rested and ready.

With a handful of talented receivers pushing for playing time Santa Rosa figures to pass more than a year ago. The leaders are returners Terrence Drew, out of Columbia, Md. and Cameron Eisenhauer, from Piner.

Going with a faster tempo on offense, Santa Rosa wants to get the ball to playmakers early and keep defenses on their heels.

“We’ve got the offense down so we can go faster,” McAlvain said. “We can get guys open.”

Hitting opponents quickly with the run should provide solid balance on offense.

Santa Rosa has a good group of running backs who lack college experience but work hard. First-year player Logan Francavilla, from Montgomery, has been a bright spot. Desmond Nisby, from Anderson Valley, and Brandon Scarupa, out of Clarksville, Md., also will get the ball.

One result of the competition for playing time has been strong support among players. This so-called team chemistry contributes to newcomers and returners alike focusing on team success.

“It was a great recruiting year for us and the attitude is really good right now,” Wagner said.

What the Bear Cubs also want to control is limiting injuries that sideline players.

Santa Rosa suffered 16 season-ending injuries a year ago. The Bear Cubs finished the campaign with some players going on both offense and defense — far from ideal, especially in a rugged league.

So coaches put players through fewer full contact practices and tackling drills.

“We’re just trying to be smarter,” Wagner said. “Our goal is to win a state championship.”