A lot has changed at Santa Maria since Dan Ellington arrived as head coach last year.
A whole lot. Namely, the level of confidence the Saints are carrying into the 2017 season.
Santa Maria went 5-5 and just missed out on a playoff bid and a piece of the Northern League championship.
"We have really high expectations this year," Ellington said. "We have a lot of seniors coming back. One of our attitudes this year is we want to come in with a lot of confidence and we want to be aggressive and basically take it to the other team. Don't give into anything.
"Chip on our shoulder."
Ellington has comfortably taken on the role himself. He says he's purposefully exuding confidence and swagger, knowing his team will feed off that.
"So far they've bought into that. I'm playing the role to get them going," Ellington said. "We're going to keep doing that and bring a different mentality to the program."
Ellington says that mentality has erased any sense of doubt within the program.
"In the past we weren't sure if we could compete," he said. "Then we started competing and now we're at a point where we feel we're the best team on the field when we walk on the football field.
"I think confidence is going to make you play better. So that's what we're going to do."
Offensively, the Saints are loaded with skill players, namely returning quarterback Blake Truhitte and their top rushers in Bobby Ruiz and Isiah Garcia.
Truhitte, who has played football, baseball and basketball for the Saints, had a breakout football season in 2016 as a junior. He completed nearly 70 percent of his throws (102 for 150) for 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns against 6 interceptions.
Santa Maria hasn't featured a passing attack like that in a long, long time.
Truhitte was also the team's second-leading rusher with 796 yards on 111 carries and eight touchdowns.
He did all that while not practicing with the Saints last summer.
"We didn't have him over the summer last year," Ellington said. "This year we've had him all offseason. He's looking really good. Isiah Garcia is coming back as well. We're basically returning our whole offensive line. Our other running back, Bobby Ruiz, he's coming back. We were young last year. This year we're experienced. So if anything is going to happen it's going to happen this year."
"We've made a lot of progress this summer, a lot of good passing games and 7-on-7 tournaments," Truhitte said. "We're a lot better than we were last summer, so that's exciting."
Truhitte spoke candidly about becoming a more vocal leader.
"I'm trying to, it's getting there," he said. "Something different. I was never a vocal leader so it's something new."
Garcia, also a senior and multi-sport standout, was the Saints' top rusher in 2016. He carried the ball 148 times for 849 yards and eight touchdowns.
"Honestly, I feel we're going to have a good year this year," Garcia said. "We have a new running backs coach this year, coach Galloway, and he's pushing us a lot. He's getting us better at running harder and keeping our legs up."
Ruiz, also a multi-sport star and a senior, had 108 carries for 535 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
"I wanna see the team do better than 5-5 this year," Ruiz said. "I want to at least make it to CIF. Most of all, I want to bring home a ring for us."
As a team, Santa Maria dominated on the ground. The Saints rushed for 2,258 yards on just 384 carries, good for a 5.9-yard average per carry. They had 19 rushing touchdowns as a team.
Santa Maria is replacing both of its top receivers, though. Angel Esparza, who teamed up with Ruiz and Garcia to help Santa Maria capture a CIF baseball championship in the spring, has graduated. Esparza caught 28 passes for 448 yards and three touchdowns last year.
Ricky Mendoza, who has also graduated, caught 41 balls for 421 yards and three scores.
Garcia and Ruiz say that winning a CIF title in baseball can help them carry over a little extra confidence to the football season.
"We're in Division 12 and I think we can do damage there," Garcia said.
"We know how it feels to win and we want to do it even more," Ruiz said. "We want another chance to feel like champions again."
Helping Truhitte in the passing game this year is Daniel Solorio, a newcomer who Ellington says is a starting receiver.
John Ramos also may be called upon to catch some passes this year. Ramos missed most of his junior season after suffering a knee injury three games in. He finished the year with seven grabs for 163 yards and two scores.
Ellington says Ramos may be the Saints' top player this year, which is a big statement considering who all returns for Santa Maria.
Though the Saints lose their top two tacklers from last year, they're still fairly stacked on defense.
Gabriel Bravo was third on the team in tackles in 2016 with 65 total (29 solo) and he returns. Bravo was third on the team with 2.5 sacks.
Ruiz was fourth on the team with 59 total tackles (27 solo).
Gerardo Zul was a force on the defensive line last season for Santa Maria and he's back. Zul led the Saints with five sacks last year. He also had 50 total tackles (24 solo).
Garcia also helped on defense last year with 46 total tackles (28) as a cornerback.
Don't be surprised if linebacker Frank Lopez also has a big season on defense for Santa Maria. As a junior last year, Lopez had 1.5 sacks and 22 total tackles (11 solo).
Juan Contreras was Santa Maria's top defensive back last year and has since graduated. He had two interceptions a year ago. Zul and Garcia each had an INT last year. Garcia broke up three passes and returned a fumble recovery for a touchdown in the season-ending loss at home to Nipomo.
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!