MJC defensive back Victor Rojas (Grace Davis High School) leaps into the air while teammates Habib Olaleye (Lathrop), Hugo Pedro (Delhi), and Nathan Chavez (Escalon) cheer him on. (Samantha Schmidt)

Reloading Pirates: Full-speed-ahead for MJC going into season opener vs. Laney

Ron Agostini

Modesto Junior College’s football progress under coach Rusty Stivers can be measured by a poster on the locker room wall.

Featured, one by one, are seven photographs of 2021 Pirates (plus others) who soon will play for Division I universities. Among them are quarterback Gino Campiotti (UMass), running back Anthony Frias II (Kansas State), wide receivers Darius Hyde (San Diego State) and Anderson Grover (Washington State), and offensive lineman Josh Grabowski (Nevada). And that doesn’t count others who’ve transferred to four-year programs.

This is important to know because, back in 2015, Stivers was concerned about the program’s direction after his first MJC team went an up-and-down 5-6. The Pirates lost their last four, all high-scoring affairs, and the last was a bowl-game setback at Santa Rosa.

The number of future Division I players on that team? Zero. Simply, MJC was losing to teams fortified by better talent.

“I told Kirk Peterson (MJC recruiting coordinator), ‘I would do anything just to get one guy going to a Division I school,’” Stivers remembered. “Why can’t we do that?”

Well, the poster indicates that MJC has done that, all without compromising its grown-at-home philosophy.

Modesto will begin the 2022 season at home Saturday night at 5 o'clock against Laney of Oakland. Its program has taken major strides since Stivers took charge seven years ago. Even the Pirates’ infrastructure has started a major upgrading – more on that later – though top priority is replacing all that 2021 athleticism.

Campiotti passed for 1,931 yards, rushed for 834 yards and accounted for 27 touchdowns. Frias scored 17 TDs. Replacing them, among the rest, will not be easy.

A good sign was the Pirates’ encouraging scrimmage at home last week against City College of San Francisco, the reigning state champion and 13-0 a year ago.  Stivers liked what he saw that evening.

“Now we’re a little battle-tested,” he said.

Modesto’s wide-open NASCAR offense shouldn’t slow down this season. The Pirates will trot out quarterback Luke Weaver (the younger brother of former MJC quarterback Jack Weaver) and running backs Aiden Taylor and Julian Lopez, all record-breaking high school stars in the area.

Supporting them will be another huge offensive line, led by returners Alex Ramirez (6-foot-2, 315) and tackle Logan Wong (6-5, 300). Newcomers up front are Tyler McMahan (6-6, 290), Jacob Edmond (6-5, 340) and Eteuati Lilio (6-4, 300).

The defense will be anchored by returning linebackers Cam Snow and Peyton Bradford (both captains on defense) and lineman Maalona Pule. The captains on offense are Ramirez and receiver Jacob De Jesus.

“I think we can be a state contender,” said Ramirez, an all-conference center last year. “We’re getting a little more love in Modesto. A lot of people support the program.”

Modesto, the defending Valley champion along with Fresno, finished 9-4 in 2021, including a Grizzly Bowl victory over Diablo Valley. The Pirates were ranked eighth in California in the season-ending JC Athletic Bureau poll.

They’ve also won 25 games over the last three seasons, the most successful run in a century of MJC football.

This season, the Pirates are ranked No. 11 before the season opener. They’ve earned their respect in recent years, and local impact has been felt. Plans are fast-tracked toward a new scoreboard and renovated press box at MJC Stadium.

The headquarters of the program have been relocated to the former electronics building south of the stadium. There, the Pirates enjoy spacious new office and meeting facilities.

“I like the team camaraderie this year. We’re able to spend more time together,” Stivers said. “There is a lot of support. We’re moving in the right direction and transferring a lot of kids.”

Moving their players to four-year schools is a sustained point of emphasis. Stivers believes his program has become a better destination because of that, and he’s probably right.

That poster on the wall is proof.

NOTES — Home games at MJC will kick off at 5 p.m., an hour earlier than recent years. … The Pirates aim for their third straight win over Laney. The Eagles are ranked 14… Conference realignment, which happens every other year, has resulted in ac ange in the Valley Conference. Contra Costa has been promoted, replacing West Hills.  …The MJC schedule: Sept. 3, Laney, 5 p.m.; Sept. 10, at Santa Rosa, 5 p.m.; Sept. 17, at San Mateo, 1 p.m.; Sept. 24, Butte, 5 p.m.; Oct. 1, at American River, 1 p.m.; Oct. 15, Sacramento City, 5 p.m.; Oct. 22, at Contra Costa, 1 p.m.; Oct. 29, Reedley, 5 p.m.; Nov. 5, Sequoias, 5 p.m.; Nov. 12, Fresno City, 1 p.m.