Daily Pilot – When you have been coaching football for as long as Newport Harbor High coach Jeff Brinkley, you tend to be good at drowning out the outside noise.
Some have pointed out that rival Corona del Mar will be the first team to play a game that counts at the Sailors’ renovated Davidson Field, on Friday against JSerra. The Sailors don’t play their first home game until two weeks later, Sept. 8, against Chino Hills.
The scheduling is of little concern to Brinkley, who calls the renovated field “the best facility in Orange County.” It’s not something the coach, in his 32nd year at the helm, can control.
“It doesn’t matter to me who opens it, or what’s written on the walls, or anything else,” Brinkley said. “A field’s a field.”
Nor do rumors that this could be his final year at Newport Harbor affect Brinkley, who turns 65 next month.
“Everybody says, ‘People say,’ and I go, ‘Who are people?’ ” Brinkley said. “I don’t know who would say that. Certainly, nobody close to me. I love coaching. I’m having a good time. We have good kids and a good staff; it’s been very enjoyable.”
The biggest concern for Brinkley is getting the Sailors ready for the season. They have a home scrimmage against Canyon Springs on Thursday, before opening the regular season on the road against Pacifica on Sept. 2.
Depth is an issue for the Sailors, Brinkley said. Newport Harbor lost most of its top players from a year ago, like running back Cole Kinder, lineman Mike Jarboe and linebacker Gage Roberson, to graduation. Kinder, the Sunset League Offensive Player of the Year, ran 4,041 total yards and scored 44 touchdowns in his varsity career.
But junior quarterback Sam Barela is back under center. And Brinkley is excited about his progress.
“He had a really good summer,” Brinkley said. “The numbers were very equivalent to [Cole] Norris at that stage of his career.”
The comparison to Norris, who set Sailors career passing records with 6,955 yards and 73 touchdowns before graduating in 2015, is high praise for Barela. Both became the Sailors’ starting quarterback as a sophomore.
“That’s pretty big,” Barela said. “Cole’s been my mentor for the past five years. I’m best friends with his little brother [Campbell]. I got to learn a lot from him on and off the field, see how he does things and how he represents himself, which is very well. Last year, I had a lot of guys to look up to. On my line, they were all seniors, and Gage Roberson on the defensive end. I’ve grown as a leader on and off the field, which I think is due to the help that I had last year and the confidence that I’ve had this year over the summer.”
Barela wants to lead the Sailors back to the CIF playoffs, which they’ve missed in back to back years for the first time in Brinkley’s tenure. Last year, Newport Harbor placed third in league, behind league champion Edison and Los Alamitos. In years past, that would have meant a guaranteed playoff berth. But this time, there was no room in the CIF Southern Section Division 6 playoff bracket.
Other top returning players for Newport Harbor include senior receiver/safety Jake Bashore and speedy junior Raphael Cruz, who’s projected to start at receiver and cornerback.
Brian Bailey, a junior, is a returner and two-way starter at fullback and middle linebacker. And Brinkley counts on offensive and defense tackle Spencer Blake, a senior who is likely the team’s best lineman, as well as senior safety Juan Gomez. Will Harvey, a junior, returns at tight end.
Two transfers also should play a key role. Either senior Jalen Andrews or junior Colin Gregg should start at running back, with Andrews a linebacker on defense and Gregg at cornerback. Andrews is a transfer from JSerra who hasn’t played football for a couple of years, while Gregg comes to the Sailors from Los Gatos High in Northern California.
With the Sailors’ lack of depth, making it to Sunset League play relatively healthy will be crucial, Brinkley said. Once there, every game could be a war.
“It’s going to be very tough,” Brinkley said. “I mean, obviously, Edison and Los Al have separated themselves from the pack. In terms of the rest of the league, I would say we’re all very equivalent. I think the numbers of kids that are out at those four schools are probably about the same. Yeah, it’s going to be a dogfight. I feel the same way as last year. If we can make the playoffs, I think we can be competitive.
“For us, it’s like the NFL. Those guys, their whole goal is to make the playoffs. You can only win the Super Bowl if you make the playoffs, and that’s how we’ve always been … We’ve always been a good playoff team. That’s why we’ve been in the finals eight times.”
The Sailors open league play at home against Los Alamitos on Oct. 5. It will be a big game at Davidson, which cost $15.9 million to renovate, according to the Newport Mesa Unified School District.
The football coach in Brinkley said that having the field reopen helps his program in terms of having more room for practice.
“Our freshmen can come down here onto our practice field and have a nice spot to practice out here on the grass,” Brinkley said. “It was pretty tight before. The freshmen would have to kind of go out into the outfield of the JV baseball field, but now they have a whole field. They took our old practice field.”
The football player in Barela can’t wait to go out there on his own campus for Friday Night Lights, something that wasn’t possible a year ago. With Davidson closed, the team played home games at Orange Coast College and Jim Scott Stadium in Costa Mesa in 2016.
“It’s very awesome to be back at home,” Barela said. “I grew up watching every varsity game that was at home for the past like 10 years.”
Sept. 2: at Pacifica
Sept. 8: vs. Chino Hills
Sept. 15: vs. Corona del Mar
Sept. 22: at Los Altos
Sept. 29: vs. Los Angeles Cathedral
Oct. 5: vs. Los Alamitos *
Oct. 13: vs. Edison *
Oct. 20: vs. Fountain Valley *
Oct. 27: at Marina *
Nov. 3: at Huntington Beach *
* denotes Sunset League game
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