Benefield: Santa Rosa Junior College a steppingstone in football and life
Luke Haggard never thought he’d be here.
On a recent, hot morning, he was working out at Santa Rosa Junior College, prepping for the 2019 season. Standing 6 feet, 6 inches tall, weighing 280 pounds and sporting a brace on one knee, he’s wearing Bear Cubs practice gear.
A standout lineman who graduated from Petaluma High School in 2017, he got exactly two offers to play football in college. One was from Western Oregon and the other was from Humboldt State - a program that folded after the 2018 season.
Lining up behind him this season at running back, Kenneth Fitzgerald was in a similar situation at the close of his high school career. A monster back his senior year at Casa Grande High, running for more than 1,000 yards and 17 touchdowns for the Gauchos, Fitzgerald averaged 93 yards per game.
With those numbers, he thought the football world would come to him. When it didn’t, it was part disappointment, part bewilderment.
Not satisfied with the options before them, both Haggard and Fitzgerald turned to Santa Rosa Junior College. Both hoped it was a program that would take them where they wanted to go.
But they didn’t embrace that idea immediately. And looking around their locker room this season, they both guessed that few do, at least right away.
“I never thought I would be at a JC,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t know. I just thought everything was going to be given to me. In high school, I was a little too ignorant, to be honest.”
Fitzgerald is somewhat unique. He had an offer; it just wasn’t the one he envisioned for himself as a senior in high school.
The University of Rhode Island offered him a full ride. But Fitzgerald worried about the distance between a new school and home, and also, he wanted a higher-profile program. Sac State invited him to be a preferred walk-on.
“I didn’t really want to walk on,” he said. “I know what I want. I want a bigger offer, a better offer.”
That, to him, is ideally a school in the Pac-12.
“I wanted to play big-time,” he said.
So he turned to SRJC to help get him there.
So did Haggard. He, too, was at a football crossroads coming out of high school.
“At first I was like, ‘No way I’m going to play JC football,’” he said. “I thought, there is no glory in it. When you tell people, ‘I’m playing JC football,’ no one is like ‘OK, cool.’”
Selling the program
That is what Bear Cubs head coach Lenny Wagner is up against. He makes no bones about the piece of his job that is selling the idea of JC football to a high school senior who envisioned more.
“It’s kind of a letdown - to feel like you did all that work,” Wagner said. “There is almost an entitlement to think, ‘I did all this stuff, I was this all-Sonoma County running back.’ There is not a lot of perspective.
“They feel like a failure,” he said.
Wagner is a massive booster of his program and yet he openly acknowledges that rare is the athlete who dreams of suiting up for the Bear Cubs. If someone knows of a high school running back with an SRJC pennant pinned to his bedroom wall, let Wagner know.
And yet Wagner knows this - the JC can be a crucial piece of the puzzle that gets an athlete where he wants to go. The coach’s job is to find the kid who never wanted to be a Bear Cub and transform him into an athlete who uses his time and opportunity wisely to make his dream come true.
Since taking over head coaching duties in 2013, Wagner has built a track record of making it happen.
“We have sent so many guys off, it’s incredible,” he said. “If you live here, why would you even consider going anywhere else? Why would you even look anywhere else?”
The Bear Cubs’ starting quarterback last fall, Rancho Cotate grad Jake Simmons, signed with San Jose State this summer. Soni Misi, a defensive lineman who also prepped at Rancho, is competing at Texas Christian University. Lineman Jonah Kim is now at the University of Idaho. Montgomery grad Lee Magers is playing at Pacific University. Seth Vernon, who played at Maria Carrillo, is at Portland State. Lucas Triplett, a Fort Bragg grad, is at Sacramento State. Ben Putnam, who went to Novato High, is on the University of Nevada-Reno roster. The list goes on.
Wagner keeps a database of where Bear Cubs have gone. Tellingly, that database includes athletes who played for the Bear Cubs but did not play at their four-year school. Wagner wants his players to get to where they want to be - even if, at that point, their journey doesn’t include football.
His list from last season is 22 players deep. An additional five transferred to a four-year school. His database goes back to 2013-14. He tracks them all.