Orcutt Academy faces Laguna Blanca Saturday, ending nearly two-year layoff

Aug. 27—Fall 2021 schedule: Orcutt Academy

Aug. 28: @Laguna Blanca, 1 p.m.

Sept. 2: @Oxnard Santa Clara, 5 p.m.

Sept. 11: @Coast Union, 7 p.m.

Sept. 18: @Cate, 2 p.m.

Sept. 24: vs. Sierra, 7 p.m.*

Oct. 2: @Fresno Christian, 6 p.m.*

Oct. 9: @Frazier Mountain, 7 p.m.*

Oct. 16: @Riverdale Christian, 11 a.m.*

Oct. 23: vs. Laton, 6 p.m.*

Oct. 30: vs. Alpaugh, 12 p.m.*

* — Central Sierra League games

It’s been nearly 660 days since Orcutt Academy last played a football game. That’s 21 months or 94 weeks, or about 15,000 hours.

That long wait should end on Saturday.

The Orcutt Academy football team will finally make its return to the gridiron then as the Spartans travel to play Laguna Blanca at 1 p.m. in Santa Barbara.

As most high school programs in California had shortened spring seasons earlier this year, Orcutt Academy didn’t play a single game during the 2020-21 school year.

As an 8-man program, it was difficult, or impossible, for the team to schedule games within or around Santa Barbara County. As a smaller school, it was also a challenge for the program to have enough athletes to field a team as every other spring sport held their seasons simultaneously.

But Saturday, that long layoff will end. Coach Gabe Espinoza has been getting his 25 or so players ready for a full fall season. Let’s take a look at how the Spartans are shaping up this fall.

Pop Tart the play-maker

Noah ‘Pop Tart’ Nickell is going to be the team’s biggest big-play threat. He’s a senior who had never played football before enrolling at Orcutt Academy as a freshman, a common theme at the charter school.

“I never played contact football until my freshman year,” he said. “I played my freshman and sophomore years and, of course, last year we didn’t get a season.”

Nickell said he used the time off to “focus on his training.”

“I had a whole workout routine I did; sprints and lifting,” he said. “I focused on family time, too. There’s nothing else to do, so I thought, ‘Why not spend some time with my family?”

Nickell said the “team’s vibes are immaculate.”

“Everyone is so excited about having a game,” Nickell added. “The energy is great and we’re all connecting on a very good level. It’s like a real family coming together.”

Nickell said the team feels like it can win Saturday’s game at traditionally strong Laguna Blanca and earn a CIF playoff berth.

The Spartans are once again in the Central Sierra League, playing teams in the Central Valley in league games.

The Spartans made the CIF semifinals in Nickell’s freshman season and the quarterfinals in 2019, which was Espinoza’s first season as head coach.

“This year, I think we can go all the way,” Nickell said.

Wagner leads offensive line

Junior Michael Wagner is “the guy” on the offensive line, according to Espinoza.

According to Nickell, Wagner is a certified beast.

“Michael Wagner, that man is a menace to society,” Nickell said. “That guy just bullies people — offensive line, defensive line. He gets his blocks, he protects us. He ‘murders’ people as he needs to.”

Wagner was a freshman on the Spartan team that went 5-6 and made the playoffs in 2019. That season ended with a playoff loss to Riverdale Christian on Nov. 8, 2019.

“We haven’t had a game in almost two years,” Wagner said. “I only got to play during my freshman year. It’s been so long since I’ve had a crowd to watch me play.”

Wagner starts at guard for the Spartans’ run-heavy offense. Anthony Orozco will play center for the Spartans while also handling some kicking duties. Edwin Martinez is the other guard and Trenton Buzzard and Caleb Benz will play tight end.

Weichinger at QB

Nickell also praised Isaiah Weichinger, the quarterback.

“He has a baseball background, so he has a good ball. He throws a good spiral,” Nickell said.

“We’re going to chip away and get the ball into the end zone,” Weichinger said of the offense. “We run the ball and we pass the ball. We’re all about deception. We’re going to get it down to the line and hand it over to the ‘Unicorn Package.'”

Weichinger mentioned receiver Leroy Johnson as one of his favorite targets. Johnson provides some size at the position, standing well over 6-feet.

“Leroy is a big target,” Weichinger said. “My speed guy is Pop Tart. He’s going to be handling a lot of the weight.”

Weichinger said he doesn’t know if the Spartans will be the most talented team, but he wants the Spartans “to be known as the most hard-working team, the grittiest team,” he said.

Espinoza noted that another offensive play-maker should be Isaiah Dollahite, a newcomer who has never played football but excelled at track in the spring.

“He’s been lights out for us at practice,” Espinoza said of Dollahite.

Unicorn Package?

Espinoza says the team does have a special package for certain situations. The ‘Unicorn Package’ epitomizes Espinoza’s goal of getting the ball to his play-makers with plenty of space to make plays. Basically, this package brings Nickell in as a wild-cat quarterback and the Spartans will run a number of different plays out of this formation.

“Unicorn just means unbalanced,” Espinoza said. “Our offense is based on deception. Every run play is married to another run play and off of that we have play-actions. We haven’t really delved into trick plays or anything like that, but we’ve installed screens and different plays and concepts to get our best guys the ball in space.”

Espinoza was the head coach at Santa Maria High before coming to Orcutt Academy. He played football for the Saints and says he’s taking 11-man concepts and applying them to the 8-man game.

“We understand that we have fewer guys on the field but we utilize the same concepts (as 11-man),” Espinoza said. “Our offense is all about a power run game. We run sweeps, traps, isos and counters. We get a lot of play-action stuff off of that. We just adjusted to having fewer players on the field. We’re at an advantage having that scheme in place. A lot of teams we play don’t recognize those schemes. We’re bringing a dynamic offense that has not been played in this area for awhile.”

The Spartans home games will once again be played at various sites around Santa Maria, such as Santa Maria High or Pioneer Valley. The Spartans don’t have a football stadium and haven’t been able to organize a game on the school’s campus, though Espinoza is hopeful that will come in the near future.

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