The Costa Mesa High football team was competitive in each of its Orange Coast League games last season.
Never once were the Mustangs blown out in league. The problem was, they still only managed to win two of the five games.
They started league with a pair of crushing losses, 15-13 to Estancia in the Battle for the Bell game and 23-21 on the road against Godinez. Three weeks later, they battled in a must-win game against league champion Laguna Beach before falling, 35-28.
The Mustangs were 14 points away from going undefeated in league. Instead, Coach Wally Grant saw the team's total wins cut in half from his first year in charge, to four, and Mesa failed to make the CIF Southern Section Southern Division playoffs.
"That's a hard pill to swallow," Grant said.
Big playmakers like senior running back Oronde Crenshaw and senior receiver Quinton Bell return for Mesa. But Grant said the play on his offensive line will again be a big key heading into the 2013 campaign, which begins with a game at Western on Friday.
"When you look at the grand scheme of it all, we're only a school of just over 1,000 kids," Grant said. "Those numbers play out over a 10-game season. We're in the same boat [this year]. We don't have a whole lot of quality linemen. I have some good young linemen, so in another year or two, I'm going to have a heck of a line. But right now, I lose one or two of them and we are a very average football team. I don't care who's running the ball or throwing the ball. It could be Peyton Manning, it could be Adrian Peterson, but if you don't have the horses up front then there's no time for them to do anything.
"I've been blessed the last couple of years to have a couple of really good skill kids, and this year's no different. But it comes down to how healthy we can be up front ... If those big'uns stay healthy, then I'm excited about what can happen this year, because I do have some talented kids in those skill positions. I know it and everyone else knows it; that's no big secret. Oronde can do some remarkable things running the ball. Quinton, at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, can do special things. But without those five or six guys up front doing what they're supposed to do, then we'll be very, very average."
Here's a position-by-position look at the 2013 Mustangs:
•Quarterback: Senior Oliver Ferris, who was the junior varsity quarterback a year ago, takes over the varsity starting role from graduate Noah JeyaRajah.
Grant said Ferris, who is 6-foot tall and 170 pounds, has been impressive in practice. He is the younger brother of 2013 graduate Wyatt Ferris, who starred in boys' water polo for the Mustangs.
"[Ferris] is a good kid, good athlete," Grant said. "So far in practice, he's hitting the guy that's wide open, and that's all you ask."
Senior Daniel Lawrence (6-2, 180), who is a starting receiver for Mesa, is the backup quarterback.
•Running backs: Tailback Oronde Crenshaw returns for his senior season with big expectations. Crenshaw, who is 6-0 and 205 pounds and also stars at middle linebacker, rushed for 1,391 yards and 17 touchdowns as a junior, despite receiving limited carries early in the season. The 17 touchdowns on the ground led the Newport-Mesa area.
"His play speaks for itself," Grant said of Crenshaw, who is physical but also speedy.
Senior Jason Garcia (5-6, 150) will also see time in the backfield.
Junior returning starter Will Padilla (5-11, 230) and senior Edgar Molina (5-10, 200) play fullback. Padilla also showed he could carry the ball during last week's scrimmage against Duarte, unleashing a 17-yard run as well as a five-yard touchdown run.
"We need two fullbacks, because we run a power offense and those guys take a pounding," Grant said. "They're fullbacks because they're tough kids."
•Receivers: Costa Mesa lost its leading receiver from a year ago, Markiece Traylor (543 yards and seven touchdowns), to graduation. This season the Mustangs will try to get the ball to senior Quinton Bell, a big target for Ferris at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds. He showed what he could do with it in the scrimmage, taking his first catch for a 65-yard touchdown, although he sat out the rest of it with a hip flexor.
"He's got a skill set all his own," Grant said of Bell, the Orange Coast League 100-meter champion in track last year. "If I don't get him the ball, then that's stupid of me. Between Quinton and Oronde, that's two very special kids, and then the other three [receivers] are very good high school football players."
Those other three receivers who will get catches include Lawrence, senior Kage Kistler (5-10, 170) and senior Jonathan Dmitruk (6-2, 190).
•Tight end: Senior Joseph Quiroz (6-2, 245), who played guard last year, returns as a leader for the Mustangs and a big blocker for Crenshaw. He rolled his ankle in the scrimmage, but Grant said he was only taken out for precautionary reasons.
Quiroz is another player who Grant believes can play on the next level.
"He's a monster," Grant said. "He's a fun kid to coach, and to watch him go cause chaos on both sides of the ball."
•Offensive line: Senior Marco Zalpa, the right guard and a returning starter, is the leader here. Zalpa, Costa Mesa's strongest player, is 6-2 and 265 pounds. He was a Newport-Mesa Dream Team selection a year ago for the Mustangs, not allowing his opponent to record a sack all season.
The left guard was expected to be senior Corbin Pritchard (6-3, 215), but he is currently sidelined with a knee injury. Grant said senior Jesse Liebel (5-6, 180) and junior Hadley Figueroa-Bravo (5-10, 170) are competing to be his replacement. Junior Adam JeyaRajah (6-0, 210), sophomore Neru Fesili (6-2, 300) and junior Roberto Olivares (5-11, 255) are three players competing for the two tackle positions.
Senior Kirby Herrera, who is 5-8 and 255 pounds, is the Mustangs' starting center.
"I didn't name off too many linemen, did I?" Grant said. "That's our quandary this year. We are thin at that position."
•Defensive line: Quiroz and Molina will play defensive end, with Zalpa and Padilla inside as tackles. Grant said Molina is trying to get 100% healthy, as he's been dealing with a quad strain.
JeyaRajah, Herrera and sophomore Michael Landaverde (6-0, 255) provide depth on the line.
•Linebackers: Crenshaw, a middle linebacker, always seemed to be first to the ball in 2012. He earned Newport-Mesa Defensive Player of the Year honors, registering 110 tackles — six for losses — as well as two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Crenshaw, who is being looked at by several Division 1 programs, is the only returning first-team all-league player for Costa Mesa.
Dmitruk and Bell will play outside linebacker, with Kistler and Crenshaw inside, depending on the Mustangs' formation. Bell moves up from playing cornerback last year. Grant said sophomores Sammy Swanson and Jonathan Brucales, who are both 5-9 and 150 pounds, also are competing for the outside linebacker spots.
•Secondary: Starting cornerbacks are Garcia and Lawrence, with junior Elijah Blanford (5-8, 170) at free safety and Ferris at strong safety. Blanford had three interceptions in last week's scrimmage against Duarte.
None of the Mustangs' secondary members are returning starters, but Grant isn't too concerned about that.
"We had an all-new secondary last year, and we did extremely well," Grant said. "I anticipate that we'll be solid back there."
•Special teams: Cameron Curet and Edgar Molina will share kicking duties, replacing graduate Jake Lux. Padilla is the Mustangs' punter.
Crenshaw and Bell will be returning kickoffs, and Grant has several options for punt returns. He said he might just go with the hot hand.