Prep football • Dual threat Espinoza is the returning standout for the Panthers.
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Forgive quarterback Alex Espinoza for maybe feeling a bit of déjà vu to start the 2012 high-school football season.
West High opened with a 21-10 loss to Highland. The Panthers' began 2011 the same way.
Yet Espinoza and company continued to work and eventually advanced all the way to the quarterfinals in the 5A state playoffs before losing to Syracuse.
This time around, the cupboard is a bit barer only four starters return on offense.
The athletic, quick-footed West quarterback, however, remains positive.
"I expect big things, being my senior year," said the 5-foot-11, 180-pound double threat. "Even though we have young guys, guys with not much experience. I expect big things if we keep performing and keep progressing."
Keep progressing. It is the theme to this season's Panthers, hoping to create another link to the school's proud past with first-year head coach Keith Lopati Jr.
Lopati, hired last season as West's defensive coordinator, replaced Justin Spencer as head coach. Lopati knows on which side his football bread is buttered, at least offensively.
"It's incredible because he plays such a big part for us," Lopati said. "He's a captain on the offensive side of the ball. Everything starts with him. If he's on, we're on."
Then, after a moment: "He's huge."
In the season opener against Highland, the Panthers looked overmatched in the first half. The Rams' defense completely bottled up Espinoza and West.
Eventually, Espinoza began rolling out to create room, gaining 97 yards including a fake punt and a touchdown.
It wasn't enough to win, but did provide a foundation for the second-year starter.
"If we can just stay together and keep building, we have a chance to win our region championship," said Espinoza, upbeat despite the loss. "As long as we keep pushing each other, the younger guys get that experience, we keep building off each other, we should do great things."
Last season, Espinoza passed for 1,400 yards and rushed for 334 more with 16 total touchdowns. Another plus for West and Lopati: Espinoza makes good decisions. He didn't throw an interception last year.
For Espinoza, being part of the West tradition or building a new one is everything. The Panthers' last region championship came in 1995, the last of four straight titles.
Espinoza relishes the challenge.
"Ever since I came to West, I always looked up to the guys who have been the captains," he said. "Finally, I got my opportunity and I'll do the best I can do."
Which should be pretty good.
Senior quarterback lifts hopes for West
West quarterback Alex Espinoza returns to the field after passing for 1,400 yards and accounting for 16 total touchdowns.
Espinoza is one of only four returning starters for the Panthers this season.
West is trying to build off last year's quarterfinal appearance, the school's first in more than a decade.