APTOS—Aptos High football coach Randy Blankenship joined the state’s 300-win club last year, becoming one of a dozen coaches who have reached that feat.
Prior to that he brought home four Central Coast Section championships to the Mariners’ program since he arrived in 2010.
But the 69-year-old longtime coach is far from being done.
“I want to keep coaching until I’m not having fun,” he said. “Last year would’ve been a good year to step out if that’s what I was shooting for [but] I was never shooting for 300 [wins]…I still enjoy trying to prepare these guys.”
Blankenship returns for his 13th season with the program. Only this year he’s faced with what might be one of his biggest challenges to date.
Aptos lost a big chunk of its upperclassmen due to graduation with the departure of 29 seniors including Seamus Carey, Rio Cruz, Vito Riccabona, JJ O’Hara and Nick Forbes.
The Mariners this season will have just 11 seniors to lead a young and inexperienced group at the varsity level. The depth chart also isn’t as deep as in previous years, which means staying healthy is going to be one of the key factors this season.
“They’re a frustrating bunch, but the good thing is they’re quick learners,” Blankenship said.
Blankenship noted that players have steadily improved since the first day of practice on Aug. 5. He also mentioned that he loves the team’s willingness to work and the fact that they want to get better.
“We’re just as green as the grass right now,” he said. “We’re very inexperienced, but the experience we have is all in the backfield.”
Blankenship said that sometimes an experienced backfield is what can help an offensive line that’s young such as themselves. The core of their running backs are big and physical, while the smaller backs are fast and shifty.
“We have plenty of depth there,” Blankenship said.
Caden Prichard is one of the 11 seniors and the leader in what will be a loaded backfield for the Mariners.
The 5-foot-11, 192-pound senior is coming off a great season, finishing with a team-best 487 rushing yards on 61 carries and eight touchdowns, according to the Monterey Bay Prep Report website.
“It took a lot more leadership, for sure, to take control of the team,” Prichard said. “But setting goals as a team has definitely helped us.”
He had a remarkable game against Saint Francis of Mountain View in the CCS Division I quarterfinals, finishing with 124 rushing yards on 18 carries and two touchdowns.
Blankenship said his standout running back is bigger, faster and stronger than ever.
“The challenge for [Pirchard] is to play up to his ability at all times and understand he’s our best athlete,” Blankenship said.
Prichard was primarily on offense last year, but this season he’ll be on both sides of the ball.
“I’m hoping to accomplish a lot this season,” he said. “I spent a lot of time here, a lot of practicing the last couple of months preparing with this team.”
Prichard said they’ve come a long way from spring practice. He believes they’re shaping up pretty well and they could accomplish a lot as long as the team chemistry sticks together.
“We still have some ways to go but we’re picking up the energy and I think things are shaping to the way that we want,” he said.
Blankenship, who is known for executing the Wing T offense to perfection, is excited to see what they can do with the ball in their hands. He expects to have a great mesh this season, which is something they haven’t had in the past couple of years.
“I stand there and play linebacker and I don’t know who has the ball,” he said. “If I can’t stand there with no linemen in front of me and I can’t find the ball, then they can have a field day with the rush game.”
The Mariners’ “bulldozing crew” also includes senior Dante Aranda, a 5-10, 234-pound fullback, and junior running back Lawrence Ingram IV.
“We’re going to have to be physical and the thing that’s shown so far in practice is our big backs run like big backs,” Blankenship said.
Blankenship said that senior offensive lineman Ben Bruno was the best center in the PCAL last season.
The longtime coach said Bruno can do things at his position that not many have done in the past at Aptos.
“I keep looking back at my past centers and who can block as well as him,” Blankenship said. “He’s the elder statesman. He’s a senior and everybody else are juniors or sophomores.”
So far this year, Bruno has attended every practice and he’s taken every snap either at center or as a backup guard.
“When he mauls somebody, he really enjoys it,” Blankenship said. “If you ever see him come off the field on the sidelines, he comes off screaming and hollering.”
Bruno said it’s nice to hear his head coach give him some praise about the way he plays the game. However, he still feels like there’s something for him to prove.
“I try and not to let it get to my head because I want to stay humble. I still want to chase goals,” Bruno said. “I didn’t get first team all-league last year, so I clearly don’t believe it still. I didn’t even get all-CCS…I just want to prove that I am that guy, so hopefully I can this year.”
Bruno said this season is also about proving the doubters wrong, especially after the Mariners lost a big part of the team.
“We got a lot of young guys, so we wanna show what we can do with a new group,” he said.
On top of opening up holes for the rush attack, Bruno and the rest of the linemen will protect starting quarterback Matt Hood after the departure of Forbes.
Colin Mennie, a senior returning defensive starter, struggled his junior year playing his first season as a linebacker. Blankenship said that Mennie’s offseason couldn’t have turned out better.
“He’s bigger and stronger but he’s relaxed,” Blankenship said. “He’s playing with confidence right now. He’s one rangy guy. He’s going to cause problems in the passing game because of his length.”
Mennie said they definitely have something to prove with what he considers a smaller and inexperienced group. He said a big thing for the seniors is just being able to lead the younger players in warm-up drills and having them get to practice early.
“Just showing them how we play Aptos football and how we do things everyday,” he said.
Aptos finished with an 8-2 overall record and went 6-1 in the Gabilan Division behind league champion Salinas High before losing to Saint Francis in the opening round of the CCS D-I playoffs.
Mennie said the focus this year is winning a league title and trying to beat the Cowboys for the first time in five attempts.
The Mariners haven’t done either since 2016 when they beat Salinas, 21-14, and captured the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League championship in the same year.
“Coming back and hopefully running the table and getting a league championship, that would be our lead goal,” Mennie said. “And hopefully go beyond that.”
Aptos will also face Alisal, Alvarez, Hollister, Palma and newly added Santa Cruz in league action this season.
Mennie said it’s good to be able to compete against the premier teams because to be the best they have to beat the best.
“I think it’s awesome that we, as a program, we’ve grown over the years and are able to play this top competition,” he said. “I think it’s cool that we get to prove ourselves to be one of the top in the area.”
Bruno added that it’s incredible for a smaller school such as Aptos, which has nearly 1,500 students enrolled, to be able to compete against some of the bigger schools with more than 3,000 students.
“Some games we hang in and we just prove that with our heart we can keep up with them,” he said.
Aptos football schedule
- At Oakdale, 8/26 at 7:30pm
- Campolindo, 9/2 at 7:30pm
- Mission College Prep, 9/9 at 7:30pm
- North Salinas, 9/15 at 7:30pm
- At Santa Cruz*, 9/23 at 7:30pm
- At Alvarez*, 10/7 at 7:30pm
- Salinas*, 10/14 at 7:30pm
- At Palma*, 10/21 at 7:30pm, Rabobank Stadium
- Alisal*, 10/28 at 7:30pm
- Hollister*, 11/4 at 7:30pm
*PCAL-Gabilan division play