Just last year, the Cabrillo College football team returned to the field after a two-year suspension that nearly led to a lifetime ban for the program.
The Seahawks dropped their season opener to De Anza College, leaving a bitter taste of defeat and setting the tone for a 2-8 overall record in what was considered a rebuilding year in 2022.
Cabrillo head coach Justin Hansen said the only way to prevent and resolve that problem from happening was simple.
“It’s like they say, it couldn’t have been any more true,” he said.
The Seahawks began their 2023 campaign with back-to-back victories including a 21-5 statement win against De Anza in the teams’ season opener Sept. 2.
Cabrillo (2-0) followed up a week later by edging Siskiyous College, 13-7, in front of the home crowd at Carl Conelly Stadium in Aptos.
After only having just two sophomores available last season, the ‘Hawks currently have 20 players with experience in the system and a foundation of team culture established.
“They have a feel for the college game, which helps mainly with the freshmen,” Hansen said. “They’ve got guys that can give them advice and an idea of what to expect.”
Every player on Cabrillo’s roster graduated high school in California with the vast majority coming from Santa Cruz County.
This year’s offseason was the first ever in which California community colleges were allowed to practice in full pads during the spring such as NCAA schools.
For sophomore quarterback Raphael Bendo, he feels this is just one of the many reasons Cabrillo’s fans have to be optimistic for this year.
“It was huge getting up to game speed from the spring. Whatever we can do to mimic game speed early in the year,” Bendo said. “This year I feel like it’s definitely more of a family.”
In 2022, Bendo completed 53-of-144 pass attempts for 829 yards passing to go along with six touchdowns and five interceptions in nine games played.
Bendo—who graduated from Terra Nova High—hopes to improve those numbers but he is acutely aware his team has just one returning receiver in Issaiah Cruz, a Soledad High alumnus.
It will take repetitions to develop in-game connections with his teammates.
Freshman receiver Rio Cruz—no relation to Issaiah Cruz—has already proven himself to be a valuable asset with coaches and players commending his work ethic.
Cruz, an Aptos High alumnus, had a foot in the door at San Jose State but decided experience on the field would be invaluable at this point in his playing career.
“We’re very happy with where we’re at,” he said. “We aren’t over confident but we know what we’re capable of and I think we should have beat De Anza by a lot more than that.”
Cabrillo’s opening drive against De Anza found itself ahead 7-0 when Bendo connected with freshman receiver Tristan Trotter for a 35-yard touchdown pass.
They never looked back and by halftime the Seahawks racked up the entirety of their 21 points.
Many returning players feel as though they have a chip on their shoulders from serving as the league’s punching bag last season and aim to turn the tables.
The Seahawks’ defense gave up an average of 37.5 points per game, while the offense was averaging 14.8 points in 2022.
There were bright spots throughout the year including a 48-14 early season victory against Yuba. Hansen said consistency and augmentation of talent is how he’s pushed the players thus far.
“Our offensive line and front six; I think those would be the two groups that we’re going to rely on this season when we face tough teams,” Hansen said.
The tribulations of building a team from the ground up, and inconsistencies that came with it, played a major factor.
Cabrillo fell to Feather River 70-14, then had their dominant win against Yuba just to get crushed by Foothill 54-14 the subsequent week.
The Seahawks placed sixth in the California Community College Athletic Association American Conference Golden Coast Division with a 1-5 record in conference play.
Every time they seemed to get the ball rolling, something would offset their course for success.
However, this year feels different and most players such as sophomore defensive back Mat Percival had the ball rolling since spring training.
“The energy is different, more guys are coming out [to play],” he said. “It’s like a chip on the shoulder, which I feel like we still carry and it’ll carry into the season.”
With that chip on their shoulder, Percival believes all the work they put in the offseason will make all the difference in winning games. So far it’s shown following a 2-0 start this year.
As a cornerstone of the team’s defense and leader on the field, Percival set the standard with an interception that led to Cabrillo’s second touchdown of the young season.
Cabrillo has two more non-conference games starting at Yuba College on Saturday at 1pm, followed by a home game against Foothill on Sept. 23 at 6pm.
Then it’s on to the American Conference Golden Coast Division opener against San Jose City College in Aptos on Sept. 30 at 6pm.
“We’ll take the win but don’t get too high or low,” said Bendo after their win over De Anza. “Stay even-keeled, and get ready for the rest of the season.”