When Ramona High football coach Damon Baldwin sat down two weeks ago to watch film of the Oceanside defense in preparation for the teams' showdown in the regular-season finale, he could have been forgiven for thinking he had accidentally popped in a horror movie.
What Baldwin saw on the screen was truly frightening. No. 78 for Oceanside exploding between two offensive linemen as if their feet were planted in cement. No. 78 picking up and tossing down quarterbacks like ragdolls. No. 78 chasing down running backs on the perimeter as if he were a sleek linebacker instead of a 6-foot-3, 280-pound defensive tackle.
Baldwin might as well have seen No. 78, Pirates senior Thomas Molesi, in his nightmares that week. And the reality proved no less scary, as Molesi led a swarming defense that made life miserable for the Bulldogs in a 52-6 Oceanside rout that wrapped up a perfect regular season for the premier team in San Diego County.
"Our game plan going in was to double-team him, and it worked for a little while," Baldwin said. "But even with that, he finds a way to get through it or around it.
"He looks like he has already been playing as a Division I college tackle for three years. He's like a man among boys at this level."
Forget the high school level. To be called a man among boys on the Oceanside defense alone is the highest praise, given that the Pirates' starting unit has allowed only two touchdowns all season and features six players who have received scholarships from Football Bowl Subdivision schools.
Yet Molesi stood out even in that elite company, which is why the North County Times has selected him as its defensive player of the year.
"It's an honor," Molesi said. "Growing up, all I ever wanted to do was play football. With a lot of my cousins and good friends, it was always an honor to see their names in the paper. It feels wonderful, knowing that I can show my talent to our community but also to colleges. That was my main goal this year."
Consider it accomplished. Molesi excelled last year as a junior, earning second-team All-CIF honors. But he improved his strength and technique by leaps and bounds during the offseason en route to garnering scholarship offers from almost a dozen schools, including Oregon State, Arizona, Washington, Texas A&M, Brigham Young and San Diego State.
He committed to the Beavers in July, saying he valued the "discipline and chemistry" surrounding the program. This fall, Oregon State coach Mike Riley ---- the former Chargers head man ---- must have rubbed his hands with glee as he watched Molesi develop into one of the finest defensive linemen in Southern California. His 10 sacks rank third in North County, but that only scratches the surface of his impact.
Riley and his defensive assistants have told Molesi that they expect him to play as a true freshman next year.
"The difference from last season to this season is night and day," Oceanside coach John Carroll said. "He's been an outstanding player. His shoulder pad level has really dropped. He's always had great eyes and great instincts and been a physical player. But now I think he's putting together the whole package."
Molesi said he models his game after that of Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, who was drafted fifth overall in 2008 after an All-American career at LSU. Asked for a Molesi comparison, Baldwin ---- who knows his big uglies as an ex-offensive lineman and offensive line coach for the Aztecs ---- brought up Warren Sapp (a seven-time Pro Bowler with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Darrell Russell, the former St. Augustine, USC and Raiders star who died in a car crash in 2005.
"But he's a bigger Sapp and a much better player than Russell," Baldwin said. "I can't remember seeing a guy who makes so many plays in the backfield."
To combat the increasingly frequent double teams faced by Molesi this season, Carroll has gotten creative. He sometimes employs his defensive linchpin as kind of a supersized middle linebacker, the better to confuse offensive linemen who are left unsure as to which gap Molesi will shoot.
Not that Molesi minds the extra attention from opposing offenses.
"It's all fun," he said. "If I notice I keep getting double-teamed, I'll plan something in my head to make sure it's not going to happen anymore. Plus, I'm also an offensive lineman, so the first thing I do is look at the lineman's hand to notice if it's heavy or if it's light. If it's heavy, I know it's going to be a run. I'll even play with him, saying, 'Is it a run? Are you guys going to try to run on our defense?' I try to get in their heads."
Molesi grew up in a family of El Camino graduates and assumed he'd be a Wildcat, too. But his allegiance was swayed by the annual dominance of Oceanside, and in particular by the experience of his cousin, Russell Tialavea, a former Pirates defensive lineman who's now at BYU.
A three-year starter at Oceanside, Molesi has matured alongside several defensive teammates who joined him among an unprecedented nine Pirates players on the 11-man All-Valley League first-team defense. Four of them ---- Jake Fely, Kenny Galeai, King Holder and Rene Siluano ---- will attend SDSU, with cornerback Jerry Whittaker headed to Arizona.
Molesi considered joining the quartet of future Aztecs, but decided that he wanted to leave California. A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Molesi intends to take a two-year mission after his freshman year at Oregon State.
But first, there's so more pain to inflict.
"it's amazing how out defense swarms," he said. "The other team is going to get yards. But they won't get too many, I promise that."