EL CERRITO -- The El Cerrito High football team is trying not to look too far into the future. The Gauchos' goal is simply to get better every day and to maximize their potential.
But the expectations for this year's El Cerrito team are as high as they've ever been. The Gauchos are not only pegged as heavy favorites to repeat as Tri-County Athletic League Rock Division champions, but they're presently the No. 1 team in Northern California in Division III, according to Cal-Hi Sports.
The reasons for the lofty expectations are obvious. El Cerrito returns several of the same blue-chip players who helped it go 13-1 and advance to the 2012 North Coast Section Division III title game, a 31-28 loss to Marin Catholic-Kentfield in one of the most entertaining contests of the season.
"Both the coaches and players have the same mentality," El Cerrito coach Kenny Kahn said. "We want to be the best El Cerrito Gaucho football team we can be."
El Cerrito has two players who have orally committed to Pac-12 universities -- outside linebacker D.J. Calhoun to USC and wide receiver Jalen Harvey to Cal. Gauchos cornerback Adarius Pickett is another coveted recruit, and quarterback Keilan Benjamin is coming off a strong junior campaign.
"We have a lot of talent that returns, and you can use that to kind of jump-start things," Kahn said. "But you have 11 guys on offense, defense and special teams, and no matter how talented a group of kids are, you can't just make instant oatmeal. It doesn't work that way.
"We want to be a great team. But it takes hard work every day."
Benjamin may be of the better dual-threat quarterbacks in the area. Not only is he a threat to run with the ball on any snap, but his throwing has improved and he has an obvious chemistry with receivers Harvey, Pickett and Marquis Pippins.
"We just have to keep working," Harvey said. "When we stop, we don't look that good. But if we keep working and stay at a high tempo, we're at our best.
"We've been playing with other since Pop Warner, so when we came as a group our freshmen year, we told each other that we had to work," Harvey said. "We can't even believe it's our senior year already."
Matching the school record of 13 wins won't be easy for the Gauchos considering their nonleague schedule includes four teams that went a combined 45-7 last season.
El Cerrito starts the season at Sutter, which lost to Marin Catholic in the Division III Northern California title game last season, and follow that up with games against Bellarmine-San Jose, Cardinal Newman-Santa Rosa and longtime East Bay rival Campolindo.
"If we don't have a tough preseason, we can't prepare for a tough season," Kahn said. "As the reigning champs of the TCAL-Rock Division, we made a statement. But we have to continue to improve."
Aug. 30 at Sutter 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 7 BELLARMINE# 7 p.m.
Sept. 14 at Card. Newman 7 p.m.
Sept. 20 CAMPOLINDO 7 p.m.
Sept. 27 VALLEY CHR.* 7 p.m.
Oct. 5 at Salesian* 7 p.m.
Oct. 12 at Berean Chr.* 7 p.m.
Oct. 25 at Pinole Valley* 7 p.m.
Nov. 1 St. Mary's*# 7 p.m.
Nov. 8 SPSV* 7 p.m.
# at De Anza HS
* TCAL-Rock game