The postseason has been a mirage for the Railroaders. They haven’t been since 2008.
Coach Rob Kittrell believes that streak could snap this season.
“Oh yeah, I do (think we’re in playoff contention),” Kittrell said. “You look at last year, the Wooster game was a mess. Truckee, we were up three touchdowns in the third quarter and lost that one… Yeah, we are (right there).”
There are two outlying reasons for Kittrell’s optimism. First, the 3A North playoffs are expanding from four teams to six. And second, Hunter O’Meara as well as Nick Van Patten are both back for their senior seasons.
As juniors, the two combined for 1,498 yards and nine touchdowns. O’Meara ran for a team-high 809 yards (seven yards per carry) and five touchdowns. Van Patten rushed for 689 yards (10.4 yards per carry) and four touchdowns.
Defensive coordinators can go ahead and start game planning for the tandem now. Because they will be leaned on.
“Oh yeah, I’d be stupid not to,” Kittrell said.
Placing O’Meara and Van Patten in even higher demand is the graduation of last year’s quarterback, Sylis Sanchez. Kittrell is unsure who will be taking the snaps this fall and is contemplating using a committee approach.
Kaige Lewis, Cody McAbee and Van Patten are all in the mix.
Also no longer with the program are big men Ataloanui (6-4, 290 pounds) and David Tuikalongahau (6-6, 270 pounds). The two were stalwarts on the defensive front.
“That probably, I think, will be our biggest challenge,” Kittrell said. “Last year, we were so strong up the middle that it was hard for teams to run up the middle. This year, we don’t have that.”
To compensate, Sparks will rely on team speed.
“We lost a lot of our size but it seems like we picked up some quickness,” he said. “A lot of the sophomores that came up are one of the best team speeds we had. So that’s exciting to see.”
The Railroaders are coming off a 3-7 season, a substantial achievement considering the team was riding a multi-year losing streak until the final game of the 2014 campaign.
Does the team have momentum heading into the fall?
“We’ve got 44 kids dressed up on varsity,” Kittrell said. “I’m guessing that’s momentum.”
Sparks will start the season Friday at home against South Tahoe in a 3A North matchup. Because the league has nine teams in it, and playoffs start a week earlier with six teams getting into the dance, every game the Railroaders play this year will be a league contest.
Outlook: The loss of the Tuikalongahau’s on the defensive front is substantial. Not many programs in the 3A North boasted that kind of size up front. Sparks will be much more vulnerable to runs between the tackles. Offensively, Hunter O’Meara and Nick Van Patten coming back for their senior years will allow coach Rob Kittrell to get creative, especially if Van Patten takes snaps at quarterback. Multiple wins last year and a few close losses have no doubt pumped some energy into the program after a rough handful of years. Six of 10 teams in the 3A North will go to the postseason. There’s no reason to think Sparks won’t be in the running for one of those spots.
Record: 3-6, 3-6
Fri, Aug. 26 HOME vs South Tahoe* 7 p.m.
Fri., Sept. 2 HOME vs Dayton* 7 p.m.
Fri., Sept. 9 AWAY at Elko* 7 p.m.
Fri., Sept. 16 HOME vs Spring Creek* 7 p.m.
Fri., Sept. 23 AWAY at Fernley* 7 p.m.
Sat., Oct. 1 AWAY at Truckee* 1:30 p.m.
Fri., Oct. 7 HOME vs Fallon* 7 p.m.
Fri., Oct. 14 AWAY at Lowry* 7 p.m.
Fri., Oct. 21 AWAY at Wooster* 7 p.m.
*3A North game