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Season Outlook

As the Pioneer Valley football team prepped for the start of the 2017 season, the offensive unit had a leg up on the defense when it came to seasoning.

This year, it's the reverse.

"It was a little more complicated (for the defensive players last year), a brand new defense," the '40,'" Pioneer Valley coach John Ruiz said in a recent phone interview.

With a year of the "40" alignment under its collective belt, "They're settled in," Ruiz said of his defense.

"We're a little ahead of where we were last year, especially on the defensive side."

Pioneer Valley went 4-6, for the second straight year, last year. The Panthers will try to rebound in the CIF Central Section's Ocean League after going 1-3 in the Southern Section's Los Padres League in 2017.

Steady third-year varsity man Michael Bourbon, a senior, will be Pioneer Valley's slot back again this year. He's also penciled in at safety.

"We seem way more coachable on defense," Bourbon said. "We all know what's going on now. I think we're going to be really good this year."

Ruiz will start his fourth year at the helm when the Panthers play at crosstown rival St. Joseph at 7 p.m. Aug. 24 in their season opener.

Pioneer Valley's defense lost two big anchors to graduation, lineman Juan Guzman and defensive back Kenneth Hoobery. Both were All-Los Padres League first-teamers last year.

The Panthers relied on Hoobery for quick run support last year. "We're counting on Steven Fuerte to help pick up the slack," in that department that Hoobery's departure created, said Ruiz.

Fuerte, a 6-0, 175-pound senior, was a starter, and a steady player, in the Panthers' defensive backfield last year.

"(Fuerte) can definitely be the leader in our defensive backfield. That's our goal," said Ruiz. 

Another Pioneer Valley regular, junior inside linebacker Oscar Ruiz, is back for the defense.

As for the offense, John Ruiz's top two quarterbacks last year, starter Mathew Garcia and back-up Nick Robledo (a regular at running back) graduated.

The Panthers do have senior Edgar Zacarias, who was one of the best kickers in the area last year, back.

"He was very accurate (on field goal tries) from long distance last year. He struggled on short distance," said Ruiz.

"We worked on that over the summer. The goal is to get him a scholarship to a smaller school somewhere, where his education will be paid for." 

Jayson Garcia, a 5-foot-11, 165-pound senior who spent most of last year learning the system, is Pioneer Valley's projected starting quarterback for 2018.

"I'm confident I've got the system down now," he said. "I'm really confident with the (offensive) unit we have."

That unit's line was hit hard by graduation. Returnee Alex Pugh, a 6-7, 340-pound senior tackle, and newcomer Mark Martinez, a junior center, figure to be two anchors for the offensive line this year.

Operating out of the 'fly formation' on offense, the Panthers have always liked to run the ball. Particularly with the graduation of the strong-armed Mathew Garcia and reliable wide receiver John Salazar, the Panthers figure to be even more run-oriented this year.

"Oh yes, definitely, at least to start," said Ruiz. Besides the departure of most of his passing game, "We have a little bigger offensive line this year," Ruiz said.

During summer drills, "I think our line has been in sync with our run blocking," said Pugh.

As the man in the middle of the Pioneer Valley offensive line, "I think I can adjust," to football at the varsity level, said Martinez.

Pioneer Valley was part of the majority of Central Coast athletic programs that switched from the Southern Section to the Central Section for the 2018-19 school year.

None of Pioneer Valley's former Los Padres League rivals are in the Panthers' league this year.

Perennial LPL champion Lompoc , one of the area teams that stayed in the Southern Section, moved to the revised Channel League. So did Cabrillo and Santa Ynez.

St. Joseph moved to the bigger Mountain League in the Central Section.

San Luis Obispo, plus a collection of smaller schools including Nipomo, Santa Maria, Morro Bay and Templeton from the old Northern League, joined Pioneer Valley in the Ocean League.

Ruiz seemed all in when it came to his team's move to the Central Section. "The budget was one of the biggest issues," he said.

"Traveling all the way to Palmdale and San Clemente was just insane. Now, you're just two and a half hours away and you're playing somebody. Also, the kids don't have to miss as much school. Going down South took the whole day."

As for Bourbon, "I'm just focusing on the start of the season, honestly," he said.   

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Sports Reporter