New league offers Menlo fresh start
Oaks open season Saturday with hopes of ending 14-game losing streak
The Menlo College football program has come full circle and once again takes a historic leap.
The Oaks began play as an independent member of NCAA Division III in 1986 after spending all of their previous rich history as a successful junior college program playing in the Coast Conference.
Twenty years and many coaches later, Menlo returns to conference play after being accepted into the Northwest Conference (football only) for this season.
Menlo is the first member of the NWC from California, joining other private schools Whitworth, Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran of Washington, and Willamette, Lewis and Clark and Linfield of Oregon.
Coach Mark Kaanapu, who also serves as Menlo's assistant athletic director, has overseen the final step of the Oaks' transition. Now he hopes to oversee the return to prominence of the football program.
"We started talking about it four years ago," Kaanapu said. "Three years ago we started to push for it. It was becoming impossible to schedule games on the West Coast and we were playing four of its members anyway. It was a long process."
The move also benefits the NWC, which will now have an automatic bid into the playoffs thanks to adding a seventh team.
Kaanapu said the entire Menlo administration was part of the process, with college President Carlos Lopez, Provost Mike Schultz and Athletic Director Caitlin Collier leading the way.
"Now we have a preseason and a season," Kaanapu said. "As an independent it's tough to get nationally recognized. As a part of a league, there's a lot more prestige and it legitimizes the program. We're playing the best small colleges on the West Coast."
Ray Solari, then the head football coach, and the late Don Baikie, former Athletic Director and coach, were instrumental in Menlo's successful transition to a four-year program from the JC level in the 80s.
Menlo originally hoped to become part of the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, but conference officials wanted to keep it regional.
The Oaks qualified for the Division III playoffs their first season with a group of athletes recruited for just that purpose. In its only postseason game as an NCAA-affiliated school, Menlo lost to Central College during a memorable trip to Pella, Iowa, which is a separate story in itself.
The current group of Oaks hopes to repeat that trip, or one similar. Menlo has a daunting task ahead. The Oaks were winless in 10 games last year and 2-17 in the past two years. They bring a 14-game losing streak into Saturday's season opener against visiting McMurry University of Texas at noon.
The Oaks were picked to finish sixth in the NWC by a poll of the coaches. It could have been worse. Lewis and Clark was tabbed for last and they didn't finish their season last year because of a number of reasons.
Menlo played four teams from the NWC last year and lost by an aggregate score of 186-61. Linfield, six-time defending NWC champs, has outscored the Oaks, 107-20, in their past two meetings combined.
Menlo returns seven starters and 24 letter-winners as it attempts to make progress in Kaanapu's sixth season as coach.
"We don't have a lot of seniors but we do have a large group of juniors and sophomores who have been through the rigors," Kaanapu said. The realistic goal is to take it one day at a time and to do all the little things to create a winning attitude."
Senior Adam Hazel won the quarterback job and will be backed up by junior college transfer Gregg Parker. That prompted the move of junior Dustin Guglielmelli, who has shared quarterbacking duties with Hazel the past two years, to wide receiver. Guglielmelli remains in the mix at quarterback too.
"Adam has been here for three years; he's our leader and the players respond to him," Kaanapu said. "Dustin is a very competitive person and we needed to get him on the field as often as possible to utilize his abilities."
The young Oaks -- the team features just five senior starters -- may take awhile to come together but the talent is certainly there. Hazel and wide receiver Kevin Estes are the lone senior starters on offense, while tackle Larnell Ransom, end Mike Mather and strong safety Eric Rodrigues are the three senior starters on defense.
Eddie Connor, who led the team in rushing last year, is now a starting linebacker, though he'll become a two-way player. Mather and sophomore defensive end Robbie Fritts also moved from offense to defense.
Sophomore Drew Faria and freshman Sean Souza top the depth chart at running back, sneaking ahead of senior Jahad Mahasin. Junior Tau Faumuina has the inside track at fullback.
"Drew and Tau are great inside zone rushers who can also catch passes if needed," Kaanapu said. "I think our running game really complements our passing game."
Junior Kevin Lyle returns as the top receiver, and junior tight end Keith Marin also figures to be an integral part of the passing attack.
The offensive line figures to start with junior left tackle J.D. Puli, junior left guard Sterling Ohia, junior center Rich Baldwin, sophomore left guard Mike Sacco, and sophomore right tackle Jimmy McIntosh.
Defensively, Mather, Fritts and Ransom are joined by sophomore tackle Christian Gibson.
Alongside Connor at linebacker figures to be sophomore Asti Merino, and junior Korey Gray.
Junior Galen Perry, freshman Nick D'Antonio and freshman Albert Harvell join Rodrigues in the defensive secondary.
Menlo and McMurry have met three times previously, all as season openers. The Oaks are 2-1 against the Indians, who return 14 starters and 46 letter-winners.
"Joe Crousen took over that program last year and has turned things around," Kaanapu said. "It will be a formidable test."