Natural progression is something that coaches like to see, whether it’s during the season or over the course of multiple seasons.
For third-year California coach Darrin Dillow, he has seen it over his first two seasons and hopes for more progress by the Trojans this year.
After implementing his system and getting used to his players in his first year, Dillow led the Trojans to a 7-3 record last season and California’s first playoff berth since 2011.
Dillow would like to see California improve on that 7-3 mark and first-round exit in the WPIAL Class A playoffs.
“The goal always is to win the conference and host a playoff game,” Dillow said. “I think we have a legitimate shot to win the conference as the kids have worked really hard, hit the weights and are both bigger and faster. Plus, we have a lot of players back and our experience is going to help us.”
The Trojans have eight starters back on offense and defense. Dillow said his team could play a lot of one-way starters because the Trojans have depth, which is rare in Class A.
“With our experience, we might not play a lot of kids both ways,” Dillow said. “We’ve been having 28 players show up to weightlifting and I want to get them on the field.”
Dillow knows what has to be done for his team to win the Tri-County South Conference title.
“Carmichaels will always be good as they are strong, big and well-coached,” he said. “Fort Cherry will also be good, but I think we are right up there with them.”
When asked who the players look to as a leader, Dillow did not hesitate to point out seniors Braden Collins, Jonathan Wood, and Josh Altman.
“Braden has really stepped up and taken a leadership role, as have Jonathan and Josh,” he said. “This is a senior class who cares about what is going to happen to the program this year and into the future after they have graduated.”
Collins is one of the players who could play on offense and defense. He can play any offensive position except center. Wood is a key running back and Altman will be the middle linebacker.
Dillow believes California’s backfield depth will be a huge asset as Wood, sophomore Cochise Ryan and junior fullback Jelani Stafford should cause issues for opposing defenses.
“We have three really good running backs and all will be sharing reps,” Dillow said. “We know what Wood brings to the table, Ryan had a good season last year and Stafford is put together and is a Division I kid.”
Stafford is listed at 6-0 and 265 pounds and ran for 200 yards in California’s playoff loss to Bishop Canevin last year.
When asked about who else he expects to produce, Dillow did not hesitate to mention senior Ben Bilitski.
“We can put him anywhere and know that he will play well,” Dillow said, who added that Bilitski could play guard or running back on offense and defensive end and outside linebacker on defense.
“He is a hard worker and a very coachable kid. I expect him to have a really big year.”
Another senior Dillow expects much from is Bray Petrucci, a wide receiver who also will play defensive end. “He has great hands and really good feet,” Dillow said. “More importantly, he has a great attitude. He plays fast and works hard.”
One position the Trojans have not picked a starter at yet is quarterback, and Dillow has two talented players he can choose from. Senior Collin Phillips and junior Austin Grillo each have an advantage over the other in certain aspects. Dillow says the team is fortunate to have both.
“It is tough because both have come to all of the workouts, both do things well and both are improving,” he said.
Dillow likes where the program is headed.
“We just wanted to change the program and make it successful,” he said. “I think we are headed in the right direction.”
California opens the season Aug. 25 when it heads to Brownsville for a nonconference game.