Benefield: Expectations mount in Middletown

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Coaches are known for not dwelling on things — positive or negative. Victories are sweet but not to be savored. Losses are, in most cases, best put in the rearview mirror.

Sure, Middletown High’s first North Coast Section football title in nearly two decades last season was great, but that was last season. This is this season.

“We rode that and we were all high about it,” longtime Mustangs coach Bill Foltmer said. “But I’m not getting any extra points for having a section title.”

In fact, Foltmer would be fine not talking about last season at all except that that pesky section title did put its mark on the season before us. Namely, in the Mustangs’ current schedule.

It seems that for the first time in a long time, Foltmer struggled to fill his preseason schedule. Were teams intimidated by the Division 5 title? Hard to say, but Foltmer said he was on the phone an awful last spring and the schedule he ended up with doesn’t look much like ones he’s had in years past.

Napa High? Concord? Moreau Catholic?

“It was tough getting preseason games this year,” he said. “This year it seemed to be a struggle.”

So Foltmer took what he could get and what he could get were some comparatively big schools.

Case in point: The Mustangs open the season Aug. 23 against Napa High, which listed a 2018-19 enrollment of 1,892. After that? Concord High, enrollment of 1,385. Then the Mustangs face Moreau Catholic, a team that went 12-1 overall last season and 6-0 in the Mission Valley League in which schools boast an average enrollment of 2,200 students.

Reminder: Middletown High is listed at 499 students.

But one gets the sense the Mustangs aren’t cowed. They are simply preparing.

“It’s probably going to be one of the biggest schools we’ve ever played,” senior James Hernandez said of their season opener against Napa High. “To think that this small little school might have a chance to beat a big old football team like that, that’s amazing.”

“That’s a big gut check for us,” senior quarterback Isaac Perez said.

And it’s especially big for Perez, who this season takes over at quarterback after playing behind starter R.H. Hess last year.

When I asked Perez who on the team needed to make an impact early this season to set the tone, his answer was quick.

“I think I really need to step up this year,” he said.

Foltmer said Perez doesn’t have the arm of his predecessor, but is more accurate.

At his disposal, Perez gets a lot of the same names that made their mark last year for Middletown, namely running back Nico Barrio.

In the NCS championship game, Barrio caught eight passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns.

It was a performance that Foltmer hopes was a foreshadowing of what he can do this year as a senior and as the Mustangs’ No. 1 option on the run.

“He’s more of a scat back,” he said of Barrio, who is listed at 5 feet, 10 inches and 150 pounds. “He’s our breakaway threat.”

Barrio played plenty last season, but he was the two of the one-two punch with Drake Harbison, who the Mustangs lost to graduation. Harbison was a big north-south runner, while Barrio was slippery.

Hernandez, whose job it will be to break holes in the line for Barrio to sneak through, may have the best seat in the house to watch Barrio work and he likes what he sees.

“He’s really stepping up to the plate,” he said. “He may not be as big as Drake, but he’s insanely fast. He’s made some catches that have blown the socks off of me — mindboggling and near magic. Nico Barrio? He’s going to be great this season.”

Perez is equally impressed.

“Drake was battling injuries so Nico would step up and do the job. He was great for us,” he said. “He is very fast, very quick and very elusive. He’s very hard to tackle. He’s also just a workhorse just like Drake.”

Alongside Barrio and stepping into the bruiser role is a worthy successor to Harbison: senior Dillon Tingle, who pulls double duty as a middle linebacker on defense.

“(He) can punch a hole,” Hernandez said. “He’s strong.”

The thing about the Mustangs’ first section title in 18 years is that it has the squad thinking big. Foltmer may not say it, but his guys will.

Goals this season?

“NCS championship and hopefully we can make it to state,” Perez said.

Foltmer is just urging his team to focus on the task at hand, namely Napa on opening night. That said, he sounds cautiously optimistic about his crew.

“In the first group, we are really solid,” he said. “Probably a lot better than a lot of years.”

“We look pretty damn good on paper, but you never know,” he said.

But Foltmer has been at this awhile. He is fond of saying that at a small school, a team can be one injury away from watching helplessly as a season goes sideways.

And the NCL I is a grind. Playing the likes of Kelseyville, Fort Bragg and St. Helena on a weekly basis will either run a team down or ready them for the playoffs. Last season, the Mustangs got better as the season wore on and Foltmer said his team played its best football when it mattered most. And they stayed relatively healthy.

This is not a program that will surprise anyone, Foltmer said. He has Perez thinking hand off first, take off on the run second, and throw third. The names on the roster may have changed, but what you will see from the Mustangs won’t.

“Coaches are creatures of habit,” Foltmer said. “They know Middletown, we know them.”

“All those guys know exactly what they are going to get with Middletown.”

And for the 10 teams on the Mustangs’ schedule, that just may be the problem.

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

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