The success of Hilmar High’s spread offense has been tied to two of the Valley’s top quarterbacks.
Head coach Frank Marques has coached one of the most prolific quarterbacks in Trans-Valley League history in Nathan Costa.
The do-it-all Costa would eventually finish his career as an intriguing but injury-plagued backup quarterback with the Oregon Ducks.
Then along came Quinton McCown, who guided the Yellowjackets to an improbable Sac-Joaquin Section championship in 2008.
Hilmar upset Central Catholic in the Division V final, snapping the Raiders’ string of seven championships.
McCown would later play an instrumental role in Modesto Junior College’s revival, earning a scholarship to New Mexico.
Marques believes another golden era in Hilmar High football is underway, led by another torch-carrying quarterback.
Meet Jonathan O’Brien, a junior making just his eighth varsity start this Friday against Ripon (3-0 TVL, 7-0).
O’Brien has been remarkably efficient. He’s completed 67 percent (69 of 103) of his passes with 1,042 yards and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 15 to 2.
His most telling stat – the one Marques is most proud of: 7 for 7, as in games played and games won.
“He’s coming into his own; still developing,” Marques said of O’Brien. “I really think he’s a diamond in the rough. He’s got a lot of growth to do. Every game, he’s made that next step upward.”
To be fair, though, O’Brien hasn’t faced a defense as fast and stubborn as Ripon’s.
The Indians have matched Hilmar (3-0, 7-0) stride for stride. The defending Trans-Valley League champions have won 21 regular-season games, and they’ve hardly been tested in 2013.
Ripon has pitched three shutouts and have outscored TVL opponents Escalon, Modesto Christian and preseason favorite Hughson 100-20.
“I’m looking forward to this game. It will be the high-water mark for us,” Marques said. “If we can get past them, it sets us up for the title.”
The conference’s lone unbeatens collide on Friday evening under the lights of McSweeney Field.
There, Ripon will put its own young quarterback on display.
Nick Price’s numbers don’t stack up against O’Brien’s, but like his counterpart, the sophomore has been efficient.
Price has completed 54 percent of his passes for 853 yards. He’s thrown eight touchdowns against just one interception.
In head coach Chris Johnson’s Wing offense, Price is asked to be a facilitator – not a thrower.
He manages the carries for dynamic running backs, such as Michael Ysit (18 total TDs), Michael Morris (team-high 77 carries, four TDs) and Ryan Fugit (five TDs).
“Those guys are just great athletes,” Marques said. “We have a lot of speed on defense, so we’ll just have to utilize it. We won’t stop them … we just have to control the bleeding.”
Marques credits O’Brien’s immediate success to a time-old tradition.
Hilmar begins throwing the ball just days after the season has ended, developing the chemistry between quarterback and wide receiver necessary in the spread offense.
That connection has translated onto the field, where the 6-foot, 187-pound O’Brien has shared the wealth. The Yellowjackets have three players with 100 or more receiving yards, led by Tyler Robinson (28 catches, 463 yards, seven TDs).
Hilmar is averaging nearly 40 points per game.
“We work hard at it,” Marques said. “We throw the ball year round. We’re catching the ball the day after the season has ended.
“We’re always developing receivers, and we don’t drop balls in the games.”