Benefield: Santa Rosa Junior College a steppingstone in football and life

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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.’”

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.

Haggard remembers visiting the campus as a high school senior and seeing the lineup of athletes who were once Bear Cubs but who moved on to play elsewhere. It changed his attitude.

“I thought, ‘JC football? No one is going to take me seriously.’ I didn’t understand the chance it gave people to move on,” he said. “The first day I went to visit, coach took me and told me all about it. They have pictures of all of the athletes. He showed me the path. You actually get looks from big schools.”

You do, and Haggard did.

After putting on weight and expanding his playing repertoire from mainly defensive end in high school to a spot on the offensive line for the Bear Cubs, teams came calling.

First it was Fresno State. Then it was Oregon State. Then San Jose State.

“All three were full ride,” he said.

Haggard, who came into college with solid grades and is eligible to transfer at any time, hasn’t yet signed on with anyone. He’ll play this season with the Bear Cubs and assess his options — which may include a mid-year transfer — after the season.

“I’m leaving the door wide open for any school,” he said.

For Wagner, it’s a constant push and pull of grooming athletes to embrace the team but also encouraging them to leave when the time is right. And when the time is right for a player isn’t always right for the Bear Cubs.

Take former Rancho standout Simmons.

Last fall, Simmons won the starting job from talented Fort Bragg grad Kaylor Sullivan. He went on to throw for 2,576 yards and 24 touchdowns. After a couple of seasons in which Wagner tinkered with splitting time between two talented quarterbacks with different styles, Simmons was the hands-down front-runner for the starting job this fall. Until he signed with San Jose State in July.

It was the good news/bad news scenario that Wagner deals with on a seemingly daily basis. He’s thrilled his quarterback got a great deal, but suddenly he’s back to filling roster holes. Big ones.

“You lose your starting quarterback in July and it’s a wonderful thing for him. He’s going to San Jose State, have a redshirt year and have three years to play,” he said.

But his roster?

“It’s a super big challenge,” he said.

At the junior college level, coaches have kids one, two or maybe three years. Building a team culture, let alone teaching the playbook, is a constant challenge. Especially with those players who assumed they would be elsewhere and may or may not think they deserve better.

Fitzgerald said because so many players are looking at their time in a Santa Rosa uniform as a steppingstone, there is a bond. He said a fraternity of sorts can be built among players who don’t have it easy but who have not given up.

“We are all not the same person, but we have the same mentality,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s nice knowing that everyone is on the same grind. We are all in this together. We know what we are all going through.”

A player at a Division I program? He’s arrived. A player at a JC? He’s still working for that shot; he’s still striving. And that leads to better football players and better football.

And the way Wagner sees it, a lot of his athletes are here for a reason. Some didn’t buckle down and get the grades in high school. Some need to get more done in the weight room. Some need to improve how they play the game and how they approach workouts. They all need to work on something.

That’s where he comes in. And that’s where his coaching staff, 13 of whom played for the Bear Cubs, come in.

“It’s a family,” he said. “For a lot of these kids who maybe have challenges at home, it is more than getting a scholarship.”

JC-level sports helps athletes whether they play at the next level or not, he said.

“It’s classes, getting registered, getting financial aid, matching them up with other guys that are looking for housing. It really is a relationship,” he said. “You are setting expectations. It turns into more than a ‘football coach’ relationship.

“Most of them have huge gaps in their support system and their lives,” he said. “At the JC or any level, your job is to fill in those gaps.”

The staff was a big reason Fitzgerald committed to the JC.

“What drove me to the JC was probably Coach Amick, Coach Wags, Coach D,” he said, referring to offensive coordinator Vic Amick, Wagner and defensive coordinator Dante DePaola. “All the insights they had to offer? They teach you more than football. They will teach you football, but they will teach you about life.”

And coaches have to do that while both winning games and convincing a player who is focused on their personal sporting resume to embrace a team-first mentality.

The answer to that balancing act comes down to a key factor, Wagner said: “Winning is important to your success.”

“You really, really have to preach the team thing,” he said. “A national championship team is probably going to get more exposure.”

Fitzgerald agreed.

“You are not going to get out if your team doesn’t do good,” he said.

And that’s the balance Wagner has to strike — getting kids out while continuing to produce good football.

The Bear Cubs were 0-1 heading into Saturday’s away game against a strong Butte Community College team. With no Simmons, they are still splitting quarterbacking duties between freshmen Jhalen Grayer and Will Heckman.

In the meantime, for some players, things are coming full circle.

Fitzgerald said he was recently talking with some younger players. He told them where he is playing this season. That got the reaction he thought it would.

“They were, ‘Oh, junior college, ehh,’” he said. “They don’t understand that junior college is a different grind. I was once the same place as they are, ‘Junior college — eww, no.’ Everyone has those big-team aspirations of going D-I, so of course you are going to bag on junior college.”

Now Fitzgerald enthusiastically defends his decision. No more bagging, just bragging.

This was not where Fitzgerald or Haggard thought they’d be at this point in their careers. But both sound thankful and confident that it’s exactly where they need to be.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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