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The Maria Carrillo football team looks pretty healthy as it prepares for Friday's game at Cardinal Newman, and that in itself qualifies as news.

The Pumas were at less than full strength for their key preseason game against Analy, now the No. 1-ranked team in the Redwood Empire, on Sept. 4. They were down two of their best two-way players, seniors Isiah Kohne and Max Wright, who line up next to one another as inside linebackers and share snaps in the offensive backfield.

Then the quarterbacks started to fall. Maria Carrillo was going with a rotation at the time, alternating senior Fhestus Chomba and junior Jake Wolski. Chomba played the first quarter against Analy. Wolski was scheduled to play the second, but before he ever got under center he dislocated the thumb on his throwing hand trying to make a tackle.

So Chomba stayed at quarterback — until he got his knee rolled up.

“We had to go with Jake, and he couldn’t throw a ball,” Higgins said. “So to take stock: Two starting running backs were out, so run game’s compromised. Quarterback has no throwing hand.”

Higgins unleashed a hearty laugh as he recounted the story on the Maria Carrillo practice field Wednesday. “It was a challenge,” he said.

With all that, the Pumas were up 14-12 at halftime before Analy pulled away for a 27-14 victory. Higgins isn’t one to make excuses, but he would have loved to play the Tigers on equal footing.

“Starters are starters for a reason, and you know, those are two pretty good football players,” he said of Kohne and Wright. “The guys that stepped in did a great job in their absence, they really did. They really answered the bell. Still, you’d like to see how things sort out when best-laid plans stay in place.”

Perhaps when the Pumas face Cardinal Newman, they’ll get a better indication of their progress.

After a 49-7 dismantling of Montgomery to open North Bay League play a week ago, Carrillo would seem to be on the upward trajectory it began last season. A year ago, the Pumas’ highlight was ending a four-game losing streak to Rancho Cotate. This year they hope for a bigger milestone: beating Newman, an NBL foe they haven’t vanquished since 2005 when Adam Froman (who would later start at the University of Louisville) was quarterbacking Maria Carrillo.

“It would mean a lot,” said Kohne, a two-year varsity starter. “Throughout all my years, since freshman year, we’ve always lost to Newman. Last year we were tied at half. And I don’t know what happened, we just came out slow. That was one of our toughest losses right there, if not the toughest loss. We want to beat them.”

If the Pumas are to do that, the mission begins up front. One look tells you this team has some size, starting with senior Jonah Kim and junior Josh Kauvesi. Both of them weigh in at or close to 300 pounds.

Kim and Kauvesi anchor a physical defense that also features Josh Groesbeck at outside linebacker, Kohne and Wright at the inside ’backer positions, and the agile Chomba manning one of the cornerback spots.

“Everyone on (defense) has been together throughout high school,” Kohne said. “Most of those guys are seniors. … I’ve grown up to trust every one of ’em. I can look to that side and see Gabriel DeBaca or Josh Groesbeck on outside, or I’ll look at my linemen, and I’ll trust ’em with all my heart and faith.”

Actually, not everyone is a life-long Puma. Wright fell into Carrillo’s lap this season after moving here from Mesa, Ariz., over the summer. It was obvious the team had found an immediate contributor. Higgins said Wright is as good an athlete as he’s had in recent years — right up there with Alex Netherda, who was the 2014 All-Empire Defensive Player of the Year as well as a top hurdler. Netherda is playing for Cal now.

“Right away you see the character,” Higgins said of Wright. “He brings kind of a stoic intensity. He has high expectations for himself and for his team. I know that he was a very accomplished player where he came from. I’m sure that they were pretty unhappy to see him go.”

The line is a strength on offense, too, most of the starters having played together as juniors last year.

Meanwhile, Wolski has settled in as the starting quarterback, partly because he has displayed the ability to do so, partly because Higgins didn’t want either Wolski or Chomba on the bench for long.

“The two of them and I talked: How can we get both of you on the field?” Higgins said. “While Jake could play receiver, Fhestus could play a better receiver. So Fhestus made the move for us to go to wideout.”

The rushing attempts have been split among several viable runners, including Groesbeck and Kohne at fullback, and DeBaca, Cole Martin and Wright at the wing positions.

“I think our strongest point has been our chemistry,” Wright said. “I don’t think there’s anybody that doesn’t get along on this team.”

But will that be enough to unseat Cardinal Newman? Despite a decade of frustration, the Pumas don’t sound particularly intimidated by the encounter.

“Newman has their losses,” Kohne said. “We just gotta play football. We gotta go out, we gotta want it. Newman isn’t all that, as people think they are. People have come up to me and said, ‘Oh, you guys are facing Newman?’ Kind of questioning whether we could win and all that. But it’s nothing but a name.”

Kohne and his teammates are hoping that by the end of this season, Maria Carrillo will be the name on everyone’s lips.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter @Skinny_Post.