SALINAS — Milestones are nothing new for a program chasing a Central Coast Section record 37th straight postseason berth.
The accolades are endless from 31 league titles to 11 section championships. But what Jeff Carnazzo is approaching this year as the head football coach at Palma is historic.
As Carnazzo embarks on his 22nd season, he is seven wins shy of 200 wins, which would put him in a tie for the county record held by Hall of Fame Palma coach Norm Costa.
“Maybe after my career is over, I’ll look back on it,” Carnazzo said. “I just feel my career is far from over. I’m trying to put together a team for 2022 and where the pieces are going.”
Winning seven games would appear to be a lock as Carnazzo has never won fewer than seven games in his first 21 seasons — pandemic year not included.
“If you’re in it for the wins, that’s when you burn out and get frustrated,” Carnazzo said. “I love football. I love coaching football and teaching. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
The road to the playoffs has become more challenging of late for the iconic program, as the level of play in the Gabilan Division has created a level playing field.
Just strapping on the uniform doesn’t produce a win. In fact, Palma has watched Salinas win thepast four league titles — sharing the title with the Cowboys in 2018.
“We used to believe simple is better,” Carnazzo said. “Stop us. It’s gotten to a point where people are stopping us. We gave up more points last year. As a coach you have to evolve.”
What has worked in the past is no longer a recipe for dominance at Palma. The second longest tenured coach in the county, Carnazzo continues to alter his methods and game plans.
“It’s a matter of research and development,” Carnazzo said. “Our whole offseason has evolved on tweaking and changing things. I’ve had to become more creative and not so set in my ways.”
That includes uniforms. For the first time in five decades, the Chieftains have disbanded their yellow helmets for a flat white look with a red stripe and players numbers on the side.
The Chieftains haven’t been bashful about playing an above average non-league schedule to prepare them for the rigors of the Gabilan Division.
This year is no exception with West Catholic Athletic League nemeses Mitty and Sacred Heart Cathedral on the schedule, along with Hilmar, which was 11-3 in the Sac-Joaquin Section last year.
“I’ve always been a believer in challenging our kids early in the season,” Carnazzo said. “The day our season ends, I’m thinking about next season. Playing those teams is good for us.”
At times it’s been trial by fire in practice for the Chieftains, who reload rather than rebuild, as they chase ghosts from the past.
“We’re a young team still building chemistry,” said senior running back J.C. Escutia, who came up as a freshman. “Personally, I want to get out of the first round of the playoffs this year.”
Shut out in its last two games last season, the search for a new quarterback in the offseason was a priority in shaping what the offense will look like this fall.
“Nothing has been settled yet,” said Carnazzo, who has seen Matthew Fuqua and Tommy Nunes share the snaps in practice. “It’s a competition.”
There is no shortage of targets for the pair, starting with one of the top recruited receivers in the state in junior Logan Saldate, who showed off his speed in the spring, running 10.84 in the 100 meters.
Saldate caught 35 passes for over 600 yards last season. He’s already received offers from a handful of schools, including Cal and Washington.
“This kid has put himself in that situation,” Carnazzo said. “He works on his craft year-round. I’ve never had anyone run better routes. He’s fearless. The improvement has been phenomenal.”
Yet, the Chieftains’ most gifted teams over the past decade have come with a balanced offense, with the support of the offensive line creating holes for the ground game.
A healthy Escutia will make a difference in the backfield this fall, along with tailback Owen Sargenti.
Escutia provided a glimpse of his potential as a freshman in 2019, when he was brought up for a playoff game and rushed for 158 yards.
A broken ankle ended his sophomore season in the spring before it started. Although he returned after five months last fall and chalked up over 500 yards, he was never fully 100%.
“He was in constant pain,” Carnazzo said.
Escutia, who changed his style last year to be more of a power runner, has regained that burst in practice when hitting the hole — as was witnessed as a freshman in 2019 for the Chieftains.
“I feel like I’m back to my old self,” Escutia said. “Mentally, it was rough last year. I couldn’t break those long runs. I was a power back. This year I’m going to be both.”
It won’t hurt that the Chieftains have more experience and depth in the trenches, starting with Tommy Ducker, who was brought up last year as a sophomore to fill a role.
The 6-foot-3, 240-pounder will be a leader on the offensive line, opening holes for the ground game, while providing a security blanket for his quarterback.
While the Chieftains roster will hover around 45 players, only 10 are seniors, as it’s a junior heavy team with six sophomores also being brought up.
Escutia, Saldate and Sargenti will likely see action on defense as well, with Sargenti coming off the edge last year as a pass rushing linebacker. Escutia will be used as an inside linebacker, while Saldate will line up at cornerback.
“We can leave Logan alone to cover one side of the field,” Carnazzo said.
Noah Orozco provided stability as a menacing linebacker, while Pierce Balestrieri made his presence felt on the defensive line last fall.
“The heart of the team is the linebacking corps,” Carnazzo said. “We’re training young guys to fill other positions. Right now it’s wait and see.”