In the span of just one year, the Watsonville High football team has already gone through more changes than some programs might deal with over the course of a decade, or two.
Marcus Northcutt was named interim head coach after Joe Gregorio announced that he stepped down from the same position to become Watsonville High’s interim principal.
The transition happened the week leading up to their season opener against Carmel, yet Northcutt—who serves as the school’s athletic director and former boys basketball head coach— was more than ready to go when Gregorio broke the news.
“It’s not abnormal, it’s kind of trying to get my bearings again and get back into that mindset,” he said. “I’m just rusty, that’s all. Gotta dust it off a little bit.”
Junior quarterback Nathaniel Aguilar tossed a pair of touchdowns for the Wildcatz to help Northcutt win his first game as head coach following a non-league 12-0 victory over cross-town rival Pajaro Valley on Sept. 1.
With the win, Watsonville also retained the Belgard Kup for a seventh consecutive season and now own a 16-2 record over the Grizzlies in the battle for the illustrious 5-quart white ceramic coffee mug.
“Just gives us more confidence and it brings the community up, I know that for sure,” Aguilar said. “It’s exciting winning the Belgard Kup for our community.”
The Belgard Kup has left the trophy case at East Beach Street just twice since 2007, in what was the second meeting between the two teams but the first involving the Kup.
“The guys feel good, every year that’s kind of one of those little ultimate goals to keep the Belgard Kup at Watsonville,” Northcutt said. “The players, the families and Watsonville High itself get pretty fired up for that game.”
Similar to his second new head coach, Aguilar got thrown into the lion’s den last year as a sophomore when he got bumped from the JV team to varsity. Now he knows what to expect after getting that experience under his belt.
“I already know what I have to deal with,” he said. “That first game at varsity last year, [against] Santa Cruz, I took a real hit, I know what it feels like to be on varsity now and I was ready for it.”
Northcutt said knowing they had somebody like Aguilar coming up made the decision to name him the starting quarterback easier.
Aguilar is learning a new system under new offensive coordinator Tige McSwain who coached on state championship teams at Aloha High and worked at George Fox University in Oregon.
“It’s [McSwain’s] way, it’s what he knows and it’s what he likes to teach, and he thinks he gives us the best advantage to be successful,” Northcutt said.
Northcutt said it’s rewarding and fun to see players buying in and responding to the change of leadership very well.
Watsonvilled placed seventh in the Pacific Coast Athletic League Cypress Division with an 0-6 record in league play and finished 2-8 overall in 2022.
They ran a Wing-T style offense but Northcutt always wanted to spread the players out, especially with the type of speed they have on the outside.
“If we can spread them out and put them in space maybe we can get some advantages and score some points,” he said. “I like the direction we’re going. The problem is it’s just so much different that the learning curve has been difficult for the guys.”
That learning curve includes knowing a college level-style offense with new formations and motions that players are still learning on the fly.
Junior receiver Patrick Miller-Brown seems to be adjusting well after his big night on the field against PV. He caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from Aguilar that gave the ‘Catz a 6-0 lead just before halftime.
Miller-Brown also converted a fake punt attempt on a 4th down play that kept a scoring drive alive for the ‘Catz.
He said he wants to be able to do it all this season even if that means kicking the extra point attempt. He got his chance Friday night but the ball came up a little short, failing to reach the goal post.
“I think I cramped up and I didn’t plant my foot right,” he said.
Apart from the missed kick, Miller-Brown is slowly becoming the go-to guy on offense and has built quite the connection with Aguilar.
“He’s been learning my speed in practice,” Miller-Brown said. “Sometimes he underthrows it because I’ll be running my routes way fast but I think he’s getting there.”
Watsonville has 20 seniors on this year’s roster including Jovani Guerrero, Isaac Urbina and offensive lineman Andres Fernandez, who was expected to have a big impact in the trenches but now he’s hoping to recover from a leg injury that has him sidelined.
Northcutt said it was a big blow for the line because Fernandez is one of the smarter linemen who understands what the coaches are doing with the new offense.
“He was helping the other guys along and he’s a great [offensive] lineman,” Northcutt said. “He was doing a great job with all those assignments and stuff, so that was a big hit.”
The ‘Catz also lost junior running back Alex Arevalo after he suffered a shoulder injury in the first half of last week’s game against PV. He hasn’t practiced this week and isn’t expected to play at Menlo School (2-0) on Saturday at 2pm.
Watsonville will compete for a PCAL Mission North Division title against Monte Vista Christian, North Monterey County, San Lorenzo Valley, Scotts Valley, St. Francis and Seaside high schools.
Despite some key injuries, Northcutt said expectations this season are hard because there’s that learning curve. In order for them to be successful, the ‘Catz will keep tweaking the offense and add things on defense.
“It’s just a matter of how much the guys can pick up and how fast,” he said.