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For Hancock College coach Kris Dutra and his players, it feels like an eternity since they last stepped on the football field to square off against an actual opponent in an actual game.

That feeling is justified.

It was November of 2018 when Hancock played last and that was when the Bulldogs won the American Championship Bowl to cap a 10-1 season.

They've been waiting to get back on the field ever since.

That wait finally ends as the Bulldogs host L.A. Valley College in their season opener at Hancock Field Saturday. Kickoff is set for 2 p.m.

"We haven't played in forever. It's crazy. It's going to be September 14th before we play our first game," Dutra said at practice this week. "It feels like we've just been doing this (practicing) for too long. The players are ready to play somebody and we want to find out what we're capable of. This Saturday can't get here any quicker."

The Bulldogs had to wait an extra week after having a bye to open the season. While teams across California played Saturday, the Bulldogs continued to wait. L.A. Valley lost to Victor Valley College 28-0 last Saturday in its opener. The Monarchs finished 7-3 last year.

There's good reason for the Bulldogs to want to get back out there. Dutra's teams have gone 18-4 the last two years and have won back-to-back American Pacific League championships.

Dutra has won 110 games during his Hancock College career. He's entering his 19th season as head coach. 

He's continued to evolve on and off the field as his career has gone on, Dutra said. As the world of junior college football continues to change, so does this longtime coach.

"The number one thing I'm starting to notice is that team chemistry and character are becoming a bigger part of the game," Dutra said. "There's so many things going on nowadays that if you can manage to get a group of guys to come together and focus on each other, you're going to be successful.

"But it all depends on your guys. If you've got real guys that are competitive in everything, you're going to do better as a coach. I don't care what you know. That's how it goes."

Dutra feels he has some real guys, including returners Eddie Battle, expected to be the No. 1 running back, and Jaquez McWilliams, a starting defensive back. Battle and McWilliams are both sophomores who came to Hancock from the state of Georgia. Battle hails from McDonough, Georgia, and McWilliams is from Norcross. 

Battle feels the same as Dutra: He's ready to play somebody.

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"We are super anxious. We've been practicing hard each and every single day," Battle said. "We just can't wait to get on the field and show 'em what we've been working on."

Battle scored four touchdowns last season for the Bulldogs. 

McWilliams picked off two passes in the defensive secondary a year ago. 

"The secondary has some leaders," McWilliams said. "Me and Curt (McDonald) both played last year. We've got some guys back on the defensive line and some new linebackers. We all help lead the way."

McWilliams says the Bulldogs have a good balance of offense and defense and expects players on both sides of the ball to help the team win games in 2019.

"We balance each other out, actually," McWilliams said. "Both sides like to compete and we have good athletes on both sides of the ball. If one side is down we can count on the other side to pick us up."

McWilliams says two linebackers (who happen to have incredible names) will be new keys in the middle of the Hancock defense: Honus Wagner, who's also from Georgia, and Richard Goldhammer, who's from Paso Robles. Wagner is a freshman and Goldhammer is a sophomore.

On the other side of the ball is another newcomer: Gavin Grondahl, the 6-foot-3 quarterback from Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Grondahl will likely start Saturday. Returning quarterback Steve Schouten tore his ACL over the summer and won't play in 2019, but could come back in 2020. 

"I'm a little nervous, but I have a great group of guys surrounding me so I feel very supported by this group," Grondahl said. "We have so many great running backs on the team this year and that really takes a lot of pressure off of me."

Hancock won at L.A. Valley last year 26-14. After Saturday's game, things get tougher for Hancock. The Bulldogs travel to Ventura on Sept. 21 to take on the Pirates, who made the state title game a year ago. Ventura was the only team to beat Hancock in 2018, edging the Bulldogs 29-28 in the final seconds in a game played in Santa Maria.

Ventura beat Orange Coast College 45-7 in its opener last weekend as St. Joseph graduate Dino Maldonado completed 20-of-28 passes for 314 yards in the win. 

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Joe Bailey is the sports editor at Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Contact him with tips and story ideas at jbailey@leecentralcoastnews.com or (805) 739-2239. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jbaileysmsports

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