But a new-old face is now in charge, and looking to take the program up a notch. “We look really good,” said head Coach John Lucido, whose Panther career began as a linebacker from 1988-91 and resumed when he returned in 1996 to coach, working his way up from JV defensive coordinator to JV head coach, then varsity defensive coordinator.
“We’re an up-and-coming team. We’ve always been there; we’ve always been a game or two out. I think now we’re climbing over that mountain now. I’ve brought in a very good coaching staff. I have a lot of coaches. I have a coach for every single position, the way it should be as a program. We’re really excited for this year. A lot of people are saying it’s going to be a rebuilding year because this is my first year. But I think we are a really talented team and are going to go a long way. I think a lot of people are going to be surprised.
“We have a lot of speed. We are putting in a new offense, a spread-formation offense. We are utilizing our talents and our speed. They are picking it up pretty good. It’s no huddle, no wrist bands; it’s a fast-paced, fast-tempo offense. They are picking it up really good. We’ve got a really good group of kids. We have had the same defense for the past five, six years. So that part of the program is in.
“What looks good right now is we have JV and varsity practicing together. We have been together all summer, coaching staff and the players. So there’s nice team unity there. We are each running the same thing. And it’s one good program right now. Everything is working out. Slowly but surely it’s getting there.”
Billy Cloninger, who threw for 1,200 yards in eight games last year, will be returning at quarterback. “He did very well for us,” said Lucido. “Leader of the team. He knows the offense. Picked it up really fast and is taking control. He needs to be that leader on the team, and he’s been doing it.”
And Shamawn Wright will be returning as a wide receiver and cornerback. “He is a great kid,” said the coach, adding that he has had a “3.5 grade point average his whole high school career. Just do anything for you. He works hard. He’s the first one here, last one to leave. Really, really strong guy. Lives in the weight room; 24 hours he’s working every day, all day long. He comes out by himself and runs routes. Great character. Can’t wait for him to play his senior year and see what he can do for us.”
Lucido thought a weakness this year might be the young offensive line, but the players have stepped up. “It’s a big surprise,” he said. “I think it’s really a strong point for us right now. They are really good. We are really pleased with the way the offense is turning out. Most of them will be juniors, so I’ve got pretty much the whole line coming back next year. We are a pretty young team.”
A senior, Dejon Lewis, will probably be starting at running back. “He’s doing really well,” said the coach. “Had some problems in the summer. Came out, he’s been working really hard the last month and a half. Really turned it around.” Another senior, James Hickman, who was one of the team’s best linebackers last year, is being moved to strong safety to replace an injured safety. “He’s stepped up,” said Lucido. “He will probably be one of the best safeties in the league. He goes both ways. He plays tight end also. So he’s one of those players to keep an eye on.”
One thing that set Antioch apart from other teams the past three years was putting a girl player on the field every game: extra point and field goal kicker Dallas Butterfield, who graduated in June. But the girl kicker tradition will continue with Lucido’s daughter Gianna, who kicked for the freshman and JV teams. “She’s gotten a lot stronger. I’m happy with her performance right now,” said the coach and proud dad.
He believes this could be the season that Antioch, which has not notched a winning season since 2006, turns it around. “We’ll definitely compete,” he said. “I don’t want to say it’s a rebuilding year, because we have so much talent on the team. We will compete. We are looking at playoffs and to even go beyond that.”
To prepare his players for the always tough Bay Valley Athletic League, Lucido put together what he called “a pretty tough” preseason schedule. It starts with Pittman on Sept. 3, followed by Clayton Valley and San Ramon Valley – all three games at home. The Panthers then go on the road to Napa before returning home against Mt. Diablo. “All of our preseason games are playoff teams,” said Lucido. “I wanted to challenge this team right off the bat to see where we stand and what we need to work on as a program. It’s going to test us. It’s my first year as head coach but I’ve been around a while. I didn’t want to schedule an easy schedule. I want to see where these guys stand and what we need to work on in the future.”
Panther fans will get their first look at this year’s team with an inter-squad scrimmage today, Aug. 20. The freshmen start at 4 p.m., followed by the JV at 5:30 p.m. and the varsity at 7 p.m. The final preseason tune-up kicks off on Aug. 27, a scrimmage against Rodriguez High in Fairfield. League play launches Oct. 15 at Freedom, followed by Liberty (home), Deer Valley (away) and ending at home against Heritage and Pittsburg.
“We have seven home games this year,” said Lucido. “So a lot of people are going to see us play.”