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New-look offense relying on all-senior group

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T.J. Conley tries to shed a blocker as he zeroes in on the running back.


POSTED August 29, 2013 10:20 p.m.

Some of the biggest personalities on a football team come from offensive linemen.

That is certainly the case at Lathrop High.

Even right guard Angelo Crescini — who head coach Steven Wichman describes as “all-business, calm and quiet” — can’t help himself.

“That’s the laziest player on the team,” the normally soft-spoken Crescini said while breaking from his original thought in an interview. He simultaneously gestured toward a teammate who was strolling by.

“He’s also the heaviest.”

A smile then stretches across his face before he starts laughing.

“Just a bunch of jokers here,” he continued. “We all make fun of each other, but it’s cool.”

The player on the butt end of his quip is Joey Lopez, the hammer of the offensive line. The 6-foot, 270-pound left guard isn’t bothered by what his fellow linemen say because he can dish it back. It’s just part of the chemistry the group has built up since they were freshmen.

“We’re the hardest working group out here in my opinion, but with all the seriousness there needs to be a time where you can lay back a little bit and have a good laugh,” Lopez said. “Last year we had our dinners for the linemen and it just brings us together. If we can communicate on the football field as well as we do outside of the football field that will only make this team better.”

It is that unselfishness that has Steven Wichman excited about his first year of head coaching the Spartans.

“All of these guys really are great team players,” he said. “The fact that they’re all seniors just makes it a good situation for all of us. They’re natural leaders in their own way. It’s a very close-knit group, which is important for the position.”

The rest of the line consists of left tackle Omar Fernandez (6-2, 230), center Johnny Barajas (5-9-220) and right tackle Michael Santos (5-10, 240).

Barajas is the glue, a given for his position on the line. He and Lopez have the most experience, which goes back to their early years in Pop Warner. Santos is similar to Crescini in that he provides what Wichman calls “quiet humor to help lighten the mood.” And they refer to the outspoken Fernandez as “The Mayor” partly because of his leadership qualities.

“He’s always out in the community participating in community events and community service,” Lopez said of Fernandez.

“He’s our ‘Mr. Spirit,’ ” Crescini interjected.

It’s rare to have an entire unit of starting linemen returning as seniors, and they are hopeful that gives them an advantage. Last season, some of them were thrown into the fire because of injuries to original starters. Crescini (5-10, 215) is the least experienced of the bunch, but line coach Rob Wichman is quick to call him “one of my leaders.”

“I’m 0-10 in my high school career,” said Crescini, who didn’t play at the lower levels. “I’m done with losing. I’m eager to get that first win.

“We’re a hungry group right now. Last year all five of us started most of our games. We lost all of the games, but it was a good learning experience for us. We know what we were doing wrong last year, and we worked hard over the summer to pick up the new offense.”

It’s the third different offense the upperclassmen have played in. The past two years the Spartans went from wishbone to spread and back to wishbone. Wichman and his coaching staff are running the traditional I-back that he played under as a quarterback for West High of Tracy over a decade ago.

“It’s a lot different than what they’re used to in the past,” Wichman said. “There are a lot of rules and assignments that are applied to each of their positions on every play. We asked them to be students of the game and they come into practice every day ready to learn.

“They suit our offense very well. Not only are they physical, but athletic and very good on their feet. That really benefits our offense and style of play.”

Lopez credits the coaching staff for bringing stability to the offensive line. Rob Wichman, Steven’s father, has 25-plus years of experience coaching at the high school level and has a firm grasp of the offense having played in it for former Tracy High head coach Wayne Schneider.

“Starting out it was really tough because it’s a no-huddle offense and we’re using the numbers system, but it’s starting to click now,” Lopez said. “(The coaches) do a great job of breaking it down for us so that we understand what we’re supposed to do.”

Himself a wise guy, the elder Wichman hasn’t taken long in getting comfortable with his athletes. He switches gears from light-hearted trash talker to drill sergeant and back — whatever it takes for the players to respond. His coaching style has mixed well with the personalities of the linemen so far.

“I’m enjoying it,” Wichman said. “This group doesn’t complain, they just come to work like it’s a job but they’re having fun at the same time. I think they’re expecting some big things. What that means, who knows? But I think they’re definitely better than an 0-10 team and they know that.”

To contact Jonamar Jacinto, e-mail

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