APTOS — From the moment that they stepped foot on Trevin Dilfer Field as diminutive freshman for their first practice, this year’s senior class at Aptos High has had big plans for their final year in the Mariner blue.

The last six classes all left their respective legacy, each winning a league title and three of them capturing a Central Coast Section championship. And now this year’s group will have a chance to not only match the ones who came before them but one-up their predecessors, too.

The Mariners will be playing with the big boys this season in the Monterey Bay League Gabilan division after the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League decided to disband for football last December.

Teams in the SCCAL — primarily Scotts Valley High and San Lorenzo Valley High — provided Aptos with the occasional scare during the past five seasons but the Mariners will not find the sailing as smooth in their new league.

For the first time in head coach Randy Blankenship’s eight-year tenure, Aptos will not be favored to win its league. All seven of the other programs in the MBL-G — Palma High, Alvarez High, Salinas High, Monte Vista Christian, North Salinas High, Seaside High and San Benito High — are unforgiving, tough, experienced and large. And as if things weren’t challenging enough merely playing in the league, Aptos will play the five-time defending champ, Palma, in its opener.

Some teams might consider the circumstances somewhat of a cruel nightmare but not the Mariners. They feel like they’re in the midst of a sweet dream.

“The stage is set for us to do something big this year,” said Aptos senior lineman Justin Torres. “This is what we’ve wanted.”

Torres and the 22 other seniors were a part of last year’s star-studded team, which won the SCCAL title for the sixth straight season and made the decision to move up to the section’s Open Division. The Mariners were placed in Open Division III and won their first game but were then unceremoniously bounced in a 35-7 loss to eventual section and California Interscholastic Federation NorCal champion, Valley Christian, of San Jose.

The loss snapped the program’s three-year CCS championship run.

They said they had no regrets from last year’s decision. It served as an eye-opening experience.

“I guarantee that if we would’ve stayed down, we would’ve won a championship, but that’s not a lot of fun. Wrecking teams isn’t a lot of fun,” said Aptos junior linebacker and running back Marcos Reyes. “Competing against one of the best teams in the state was fun and it showed us that we still have a lot of work to do. I think that the work in the weight room this offseason is because of that.”

The offseason move to the Gabilan division not only served as a refocusing jolt for the players but Blankenship and his staff, too.

“I looked at the film from the last seven years and I said, ‘man, I’m letting a lot go that I would’ve never let go in the past,’” said Blankenship, who is now in his 43rd year of coaching. “The new league was really refreshing for me because I got back to my roots… It’s not that we didn’t cross our t’s and dot our i’s before, but this year we have a whole new focus and the kids have been responsive. They’ve been good soldiers. They’ve done everything I’ve asked of them and that’s why I like this group.”

There’s plenty to like, especially up front.

Along with Torres, who measures in at 5-foot-10 and 216 pounds and can play center or tackle, All-SCCAL First Team selection Joseph Gutierrez-Lee and massive left tackle Alex Austen also return as senior leaders of a beefy and deep offensive line, which figures to be the Mariners’ strength.

“The O-line is where it’s at,” Reyes said. “I know they’ve put in work all offseason. They’re beasts. I wouldn’t want to go against those guys.”

Gutierrez-Lee (6-foot-2, 283 pounds) and Austen (6-foot-5, 311 pounds) will try to open up holes for a completely new group of offensive weapons in Blankenship’s Wing-T attack.

Reyes (5-foot-8, 175 pounds) will be the feature back pacing a group of young runners who lack the breakaway speed of last year’s backs, Jack Wolf and Danner Pardue, but have made the effort to improve in the offseason.

“We don’t have the speed we’ve had in the past, that’s for sure,” Blankenship said. “We don’t have a guy that can break one every time he touches the ball this year but if we can sustain drives we’ll be OK. Having an offensive line like we have can make up for it sometimes.”

But the question still remains: how will Aptos replace the explosive record-setting passing duo of quarterback Gavin Glaum and receiver Joey Riccabona?

The starting quarterback position is still very much up for grabs between a trio of juniors, Angel Aparicio, Hunter Matys and Jacob Holmes, and Blankenship said he would most likely not name a starter until after the Santa Cruz County Jamboree on Aug. 18.

Whoever wins the job will have a plethora of nice targets to throw to, including Blake Wheeler. The 5-foot-9, 155-pound senior wideout had trouble staying healthy last season but has since been extremely devoted in the weight room and made drastic jumps leading up to this season.

“He bought into it and you can tell the difference,” Blankenship said of Wheeler. “He was as weak as a wet noodle last year and this year he’s strong. He’s a different player in every way.”

Wheeler will also play on the defensive side of the ball at cornerback opposite 6-foot-1, 170-pound junior Bubba Gallardo, who had three interceptions last season. Blankenship said the duo has the potential to be something special this season, maybe even the best tandem of corners the coach has had during his stay at Aptos.

“And we’ve had some good ones here,” Blankenship said, “so that’s saying something.”

The rest of the defense isn’t too shabby either.

Junior Silvano Lopez is a ballhawk in the deep middle at safety, Reyes will be barking orders along side senior inside backer Titan Garland and junior defensive end Hayden Mennie has stepped in as the leader in the trenches.

Seniors Darian Gutierrez-Lee and Cody Whitney, junior Ryan Bettencourt and sophomore Josh Powell join Mennie to form a formidable defensive line that has only lifted the Mariners’ hopes for this season.

“We don’t have a ton of depth in our lineup but we’re strong at every position,” Wheeler said. “I have confidence in what we can do this year.”

Aptos will start the year with a trio of demanding preseason games against Templeton High (Aug. 25), Aragon High (Sept. 1) and Placer High (Sept. 8) before kicking off its inaugural season in the MBL-G at Rabobank Stadium against Palma, an 11-time CCS champ, following a bye week.

The Mariners have never beaten the Chieftains but the rest of the league has also had trouble accomplishing the feat. Palma has only lost once since the MBL became an equity league in 2012.

“This could be our year to do something big,” Torres said. “We feel like, ‘why not us?’”

But Palma is only the tip of the iceberg in the MBL-G.

Six teams from the league made the playoffs last year, including Aptos, and four advanced to the semifinal round.

Traveling to Hollister to play seven-time CCS champ San Benito on Oct. 20 and finishing off the regular season with a senior-heavy Salinas squad on Nov. 3 seem to be the Mariners’ biggest challenges on paper. But only the top four teams in the division are guaranteed a playoff spot, making every game a must-win.

“Every game is a playoff game — that’s the mindset,” Reyes said. “Every game is important in this league. We can’t roll over teams. They’re going to make us earn every win. But I feel like we have something special. I feel like we step up against tougher competition. We rise to the occasion.”

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