LATHROP — Davis Raya-Ruiz is one of many new faces on the Lathrop football team, but he's not necessarily a stranger around these parts.
“I'm back home,” the senior transfer from Edison said.
After spending the past three seasons helping the Vikings of Stockton return to prominence, Raya-Ruiz has moved back to the city where he grew up and reunited with former teammates from the Jr. Spartans youth team.
“I feel like I'm back in my hometown where I started,” he said. “I grew up with everybody here.
“I bring a lot of knowledge from prior experiences with other coaches and camps I attended. I like being here, it's a great learning environment. I want to help the team (develop) a winning mentality. I'm not out here to just have fun, I'm out here to win as well as have fun.”
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound gunslinger may be just what the Spartans need going into their second year with the spread system in place. He busted out as a sophomore for Edison's varsity squad two seasons ago, completing 59 percent of his passes for 2,548 yards, 28 touchdowns and five interceptions. The Vikings went 6-5.
Raya-Ruiz's junior campaign was derailed by an injury and he was relegated to a back-up role as Edison soared to a 9-3 finish. Fifth-year head coach Joe Pirillo likes what he sees of him at full strength. He's impressed by Raya-Ruiz's “blue-collar work ethic” and leadership as much as his skill set.
“He's got a little bit of size and kind of built like a linebacker, but he's got a cannon,” Pirillo said. “He can really throw the ball around, he's just working on his reads right now.”
With nearly as many sophomores (10) as seniors (11) on the roster, the Spartans need all the experience they can get as they enter year No. 2 in the Western Athletic Conference. They began 2018 with three consecutive losses to familiar Valley Oak League foes Manteca, Kimball and Sierra — their same three opponents to begin this season.
Lathrop went 3-4 in conference play, losing decisively to the tri-champions — Los Banos, Mountain House, Pacheco — and fourth-place Grace Davis.
“We learned that the team that was the most disciplined was going to be the team that was going to come out on top,” Pirillo said. “There's talent all over the league, but the lack of discipline is what ended it for everybody in their losses especially for us. We made mistakes that were costly. The WAC is a very disciplined league. If you want to win, you have to be disciplined.”
As young as Lathrop is, a handful of sophomores gained valuable experience as varsity competitors last year. Isaac Ramos (816 yards, 9.2 per carry, 9 TDs) showed flashes of what's to come, especially in the 27-26 loss in which he blew up for 181 yards and two touchdowns — all in the second half.
Pirillo said the 5-5, 155-pounder will get the lion's share of touches and will still be featured heavily in the offense despite the addition of Raya-Ruiz.
“He's an electric kid,” Pirillo said of Ramos. “Any time he gets the ball it can end up in the end one. He's a track athlete who has gotten faster and he's put on some weight. He's really going to just focus on offense, we don't want to try to do anything else with him. We want him fresh and ready to run the ball.”
Junior Joey Sanchis and sophomore Jason Seabron Jr. will be two of the main targets in the passing game. The Spartans lost leading receiver Maurice Saulsbury II, an All-WAC first-team cornerback, to graduation.
Lathrop lacks depth, size and experience on the lines but bring back junior left tackle/defensive end Kevin Ballesteros Paz. Sophomore Jeremy Buck gives the Spartans some needed girth at 6-2, 230 pounds.
“We are a smaller team, so we'll just have to keep pushing and pushing and lay down the hammer,” Ballesteros Paz said.
Strong safety Johnny Lewis is another junior with varsity experience. The 4-2 nickel defense is also led by senior linebacker Jordan Denning, who looks forward to another go-around in the WAC.
“We are very energized,” he said. “Defensively, we like to run around and hit. Last year was kind of a letdown, so everyone is motivated to step up and dominate. I feel like we are more prepared for league this year.”