Eric Borja is ready for his squad to take the next step.
Two years ago, in his first season running the Spanish Springs program, his Cougars finished fifth in the High Desert League, one spot out of the postseason. Last year, the Cougs finished fourth and got into the playoffs before getting bounced in the first round at Carson.
So are the Cougars poised to ride that trajectory and make a run at the second postseason win in school history?
“Absolutely. This senior class has done a great job prepping themselves for their year,” Borja said. “They have the experience of the playoffs last year. It would be our goal, and it is our goal, to move forward, make the playoffs number one, and try to get that next game.”
A large reason for Borja’s optimism is the return of senior quarterback Korbin Marcum. As a junior, Marcum completed 58 percent of his passes for 1,453 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
It’s the first time in Borja’s tenure he hasn’t had to maneuver a quarterback battle in fall camp.
“(Marcum) has had the bulk of the reps now. You can totally tell the progression as we’ve gone through the summer to now where we’re at,” Borja said.
Marcum’s 2015 numbers likely would’ve been more attractive if his go-to target, Austin Cadenhead, didn’t miss the final four games of the season. Cadenhead averaged nearly 90 receiving yards a contest before a tumor in his calf ended his campaign. Physicians cleared Cadenhead shortly after the playoff loss to Carson. He’s a full go for his senior season.
The team’s best running back, Travis Vargas, graduated in the spring and will be replaced by committee. Gabby Ordaz, Cole Drescher, Isaac Ruiz and the Preston brothers (Casey and Colby) will share that responsibility.
That group will run behind an offensive line that has been Spanish Springs’ vulnerability the past couple seasons. Borja, who’s roots are as a line coach, believes that can change this year.
“I kind of went back to what I’m familiar with,” Borja said. “We’re going to be hopefully better up front, more fundamentally sound, a little bit more physical. We’re going to know our assignments. That’s what we’re going improve on.”
A relative lack of size in the trenches has been one of the larger reasons for such struggles. And nobody is growing three inches and putting on 25 pounds before the opener. So Spanish Springs will rely on team speed on the defensive side of the ball.
“We got guys that can move. We got guys that can play the positions,” Borja said. “We’re looking to get to the ball fast and be fundamentally sound.”
One of the Cougars best defensive/special teams weapons a year ago was punter Jake Ward. Ward averaged more than 42 yards per punt and is now kicking at Nevada. The punting duties have been passed along to junior place kicker Gray Paholke.
“(Ward’s departure is) a big time bummer, but I tell you what, he left us with a great prodigy,” Borja said. “I’ll be honest with you, he kind of surprised me. He can punt, not quite as good as Jake, but he’s right there. I’m very happy.”
The Cougars will not start this season on Friday, and instead will wait until next Friday to travel to Foothill (Palo Cedro, Calif.), leaving them with nine games, one less than the maximum number allowed by the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association.
The road trip to California paired with a summer camp at Boise State left no room in the budget for another California trip. And Borja couldn’t lure a California team to Spanish Springs after a Northern Nevada team backed out of an agreement to play in week one.
“Nothing can replicate a true game. We can practice all we want, but a game is where you learn everything,” Borja said. “So we’re going to be hurting on that end but I think with the (extra) practice week we get, we’re going kind of button up some things.”
The rest of Spanish Springs’ non-league schedule consists of a game against Douglas, and contests against two the stronger teams in the Sierra League: Damonte Ranch and Galena.
“A program has to play four quarters of football,” Borja said. “I think if we can do (that), some of those games last year that were maybe over in the third, we can extend to the fourth. Then we need to finish. How does that equate? Maybe two, three more wins for us. That would be outstanding.”
Outlook: If the defense can tighten the screws in 2016, the Cougs have plenty of reason to believe they can potentially compete for the right to host a playoff game. That’s a big if. Spanish Springs will have to find a way to slow the Reed, Reno and McQueen ground games. And that starts up front. Offensively, the Cougars should be able to play keep up if they have to. Korbin Marcum to Austin Cadenhead figures to be one of the best connections in Northern Nevada. An efficient ground game would only make the duo that much more scary. Again, that starts up front.
Record: 5-4, 3-2
Fri., Sept. 2 AWAY at Foothill (Palo Cedro, Calif.) 7:30 p.m.
Fri., Sept. 9 HOME vs Douglas 7 p.m.
Fri., Sept. 16 AWAY at Damonte Ranch 7 p.m.
Fri., Sept. 23 HOME vs Galena 7 p.m.
Fri., Sept. 30 AWAY at McQueen* 7 p.m.
Fri., Oct. 7 AWAY at North Valleys* 7 p.m.
Fri., Oct. 14 HOME vs Hug* 7 p.m.
Fri., Oct. 21 HOME vs Reno* 7 p.m.
Thur., Oct. 27 AWAY at Reed* 7 p.m.
*High Desert League game