Prep Focus: San Mateo-Serra opens with clash against Gardena-Serra in Honor Bowl

Having finally climbed the mountain last season, the Serra Padres now have the hardware to accompany their legacy.

For all the greats that have worn the blue and gold, last year was by far the best season in terms of results in Serra football history, winning an outright West Catholic Athletic League title for the first time since 1979 and the first state championship in program history, the CIF Division 2-AA title.

As great programs always do, the Padres come back this season with no shortage of experience, headlined by quarterback Luke Bottari. At 5-foot-10, he’s not a prototypical quarterback, but his strength and accuracy are up there with the best of them. He completed an unheard-of 203 of his 282 passes as a junior, racking up 2,768 yards and 25 touchdowns.

The rapport that Bottari has with head coach Patrick Walsh has been remarkable. Walsh knows a thing or two about being undersized, standing at just 5-foot-6 and getting one offer out of high school, but that offer got him to San Jose State.

“Hopefully some team takes the risk, and they’ll learn quickly that it’s not a risk,” said Walsh of his quarterback. “We have what God gives us, and while Luke isn’t the biggest guy, he’s got a great arm and great heart.”

Bottari made regional headlines last year as the founder of the nonprofit initiative Play4Prevention, a suicide awareness campaign. Those leadership skills are apparent on the field, as he runs a dynamic offense that cycles through formations faster than most other high school teams. Even with play calls coming from the sideline, the Padres jump through all sorts of different sets, including empty backfields, bunched receivers, trips and jumbo backfields, including a double-wing formation they call “Raider” that’s been excellent in short-yardage situations.

The role of power back in those formations typically goes to E.J. Lahlouh, who ran for eight touchdowns as a junior but is known much more for his defensive prowess, which has earned him a scholarship offer from Davidson. Even with teams specifically directing plays away from him, he always seems to be at the center of the action.

“He’s got an amazing sense of the field,” said Walsh. “He’s the perfect MIKE linebacker.”

With returning leaders in Bottari and Lahlouh, the senior class will be expected to lead the transition for a group that does welcome in a host of newcomers, including 10 new starters on defense.

“We’re looking for guys who got some reps last year to transition into starting roles,” said Walsh.

With players like running back Isiah Kendrick (College of San Mateo) and receiver/defensive back Patrick Nunn (Washington State) graduating, the reigning champs will be asking players who spelled those stars off the bench to step into a greater role. Nate Sanchez will have a bigger role to fill in the secondary and receiving corps, David Coker will be the lead rusher and Damon Lewis, who was called up to kick as a freshman, will be asked to chip in on offense, defense and special teams.

Malakai Rango, who made a name for himself with a kickoff return touchdown in the CCS Championship win over St. Francis, will be more prominently featured. Michael Churich, formerly a backup quarterback, has transitioned to play wide receiver and tight end, and with his 6-foot-6 frame, he’ll be a tough one to cover. Nusi Malani, who was called up from junior varsity last year, impressed when UCLA-bound Atonio Mafi was injured, will start in the trenches.

If there’s one spot where the Padres won’t have significant returning experience, it’s on the line. Malani is recovering from a knee injury and will likely miss nonleague play, meaning the Padres will be facing even stiffer tests from a grueling nonleague schedule.

“We like to play great teams from the start,” said Walsh. “If you don’t do that and schedule easy games, you show up to play Mitty or Bellarmine and find weaknesses you didn’t know about. This provides a window for us to learn about ourselves.”

They’ll kick off on Saturday night with a neutral-site game against St. Francis as part of the Honor Bowl, where they’ll face Southern California powerhouse Gardena-Serra, the alma mater of Adoree Jackson. Other nonleague games include a home opener against Elk Grove and a trip to Pittsburg to face a team that’s beaten the Padres in each of the last two years.

WCAL play opens with a trip to Mitty and a home game against Bellarmine, and the always-difficult trip to Valley Christian is on October 12. The final game of the season could very well decide the title, as the Padres will host St. Francis on November 3.

Ethan Kassel

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