Scott Altenberg is quickly becoming a legend among the top high school football coaches in the state of California. Altenberg's Junipero Serra Cavaliers won the Division III state football title in 2009. The small, private Catholic high school with an enrollment of only 650 students is expected to contend for another title in 2010 thanks to a roster loaded with returning playmakers.
Rising seniors George Farmer, Jason Gibson, Woodson Greer and Marqise Lee all look to help Serra repeat as state champions. Each is a standout athlete at his position, with Farmer, an Under Armour All-American and ESPNU 150 Watch List member, and Gibson, a fellow ESPNU 150 Watch List member, leading the way. Another Cavalier beginning to emerge on the national recruiting radar is Serra quarterback Conner Preston. As a junior, Preston threw for 3,427 yards and 44 touchdowns with only nine interceptions.
"Even though he [Preston] can run, he's more of a drop-back passer. He has a strong arm and can make all the throws," said Altenberg.
Preston received his first scholarship offer from SMU on April 5 and has made unofficial visits to a host of schools. His stops included SMU, Duke, North Carolina, Harvard and Brown. Preston also visited the University of Arizona in early March, a visit the 2011 prospect described as successful.
"The trip went really well. I met with Coach Tui [Mike Tuiasosopo], and he introduced me to the QB coach [Frank Scelfo]. They're both cool guys. I liked how the football stadium is right on campus. Coach Tui explained the game-day atmosphere, and how the students can walk to the game. I like that."
Several schools have begun to express interest in Preston, who has a self-described fascination for Tim Tebow's aggressive style, but a passing mentality more in line with Jake Locker. "I can run people over or run past them, but my arm strength is my biggest asset," said Preston. "I've always had a good arm, that's just been natural, but I'm working with Tom Martinez, Tom Brady's QB coach, and he's taught me to trust my ability and have the confidence to put the ball in there when I have to."
Preston is enjoying the early stages of his recruitment. "My philosophy is to stop and realize the whole experience is a gift, to just enjoy meeting people and visiting schools." Those schools showing interest include SMU, Arizona, Duke, North Carolina, Harvard, Brown, San Jose State, Toledo, Ohio, Iowa State, Washington and Oregon.
Education is important to Preston, who plans to pursue a business degree. "I've always wanted to play big-time football, but when I think about earning a degree from Harvard or Brown it's hard to pass up. I really like SMU, though. Growing up in Los Angeles, I used to watch every Hawaii game because they came on so late. Watching Colt Brennan throw in that offense was fun. I can play a pro-style or spread set, but I definitely favor a spread offense."
Preston transferred to Junipero Serra from Palisades High School (Pacific Palisades, Calif.) prior to the start of last season, and doesn't regret his decision at all. "Coach Altenberg is a guru," said Preston. "He really knows his offense, and I have opportunities to run or throw. Right now the schools that are talking to me all seem to want an athletic quarterback to run their offense and that's what I am, a quarterback and an athlete."
Altenberg's inaugural season at Junipero Serra 11 years ago ended with a 2-7-1 record. "After that first season, my dad told me, don't worry, get it done the way you want it," said Altenberg. "First we had to sell the program to the community. Then we had to gain a commitment to the weight room from the players. We're 23-3 the last two years with a title so the program definitely has momentum."
A formula of hard work, determination and commitment by his staff, the players, the student body and the community peaked as the Cavaliers edged the second-ranked team in the country, Oaks Christian, to become the 2010 CIF Northwest Division champions a week prior to earning the school's first state championship. "Getting up for the state title game at Home Depot Center was the toughest thing we had to do," said Altenberg. "After beating [Nick] Montana and Oaks Christian 42-41 in overtime to win Division, the short turnaround, and the fact that we were favored in state was a challenge, but the players were focused and that helped. It's amazing, we only have 340 boys at our school, but 130 of them play football and play it well."
"Apai looked great," said Altenberg, referring to a recent visit with Apaiata during spring break. "He was really about to blow up his senior season for us, but then he got hurt," Altenberg continued. "I think he's at that point again, so hopefully things work out for him at Arizona." As for the other Tuihalamaka, Altenberg replied, "Arizona's got a good one in Sione."
Arizona has already offered scholarships to Preston's teammates Farmer and Gibson, and Preston may earn his own Arizona offer in the months ahead. "The Arizona coaches said they'd visit me later this spring," said Preston. "They're looking at two or three quarterbacks and said I'm one of them."
Preston anticipates a busy summer on the recruiting trail. He has already made plans to attend a football camp at the University of Florida, and ideally wants to camp at one school in all the major BCS conferences to maximize exposure. His Junipero Serra passing league team is also scheduled to play in the Nike 7-ON tournament, and he intends to take part in the Nike NFTC on April 19 and the Nike Combine on April 24 in Los Angeles.
Gary Randazzo writes for ESPN affiliate and Arizona fan site WildcatSportsReport.com.