The High Desert League was filled with sophomore coaches last year.
Spanish Springs coach Eric Borja, Hug coach Carl LaGrone and North Valleys coach Tony Doucette all were in the middle of their second seasons at the helm. Now the faces are becoming familiar.
Here’s a look at the league:
Coach: Ernie Howren
Experience: 16th season
2015 record: 13-1, 5-0; HDL champion; 4A North champion; lost to Bishop Gorman in state semifinals
Returning Starters: 8
Key Losses: QB Matt Denn, RB Jorden Carter, TE/DE Parker Houston, OL/DL Nick Gregg, OL Ian Neeley, OL Cesar Moreno, DB Bryce Bryant, DB Logan Marcantonio, LB Jake Van Tress
Key Returners: RB/LB Tre Bussey, WR Robert Ferrel, WR Michael Spivack, QB Cameron Emerson, LB Matt Garcia, DB Caleb Ariaz, OL Stein Otuafi, OL Lucas Bickford, DL Leo Valdivia
What to Expect on Offense: Reed is going to run the ball out of its spread offense. That will not change. With senior running back Tre Bussey returning after averaging more than 10 yards a carry as a junior behind Jorden Carter, the ground game appears ready to go behind a retooled offensive line. Look for screen passes from new junior quarterback Cameron Emerson to wide out Robert Ferrel to be a staple as Emerson gets more comfortable in the starting role.
What to Expect on Defense: There are going to be a lot of new names on this unit, especially in the secondary. Safety Caleb Ariaz will have to lead defensive backfield that lost Troy Gingerich, Logan Marcantonio, Malcom Malizia and Kyeer Geisinger. Up front, Leo Valdivia will be a familiar face. However, the d-line lost Nick Gregg, the defensive player of the year now at Nevada. Matt Garcia and Bussey will provide a solid foundation at the middle level.
Team will be Successful if: The Raiders are once again loaded with talent. So the priority is health. As long as Reed can avoid substantial injuries, it will be one of the last teams standing. The development of Emerson will also be vital. Howren’s offense is tough enough to stop when defenses know what is coming. It’s another when an effective pass game is sprinkled in.
Prediction: 8-2, 5-0
Coach: Dan Avansino
Experience: 14th season
2015 Record: 9-3, 4-1; 2nd in HDL; lost to Carson in regional semifinals
Returning Starters: 7
Key Losses: OL/DL Carlos Barraza, OL/DL Zakary Mahannah, RB/LB Ian Cartlidge, RB/DB Lukas McKenzie, DT Paula Finau, QB Isaac Terasas, RB/DB Cameron Major Daugherty, WR/DB Daniel Jimenez, RB/LB Devyn Cox
Key Returners: RB/LB Brandon Kaho, RB/LB Siaosi Finau, QB Sawyer Jaksick, DB/WR Will Bernard
What to Expect on Offense: The Huskies had a surplus of size last year and utilized it. They ran right at people behind the girth. That advantage is gone. “Last year we had some big dudes and we could control the line of scrimmage both offensively and defensively,” Reno Coach Dan Avansino said. This year, Reno will rely on skill players to make things happen, and they have plenty of players to choose from, starting at the quarterback position. Senior Drake Vestbie transferred from Damonte Ranch last winter and will get snaps along with Sawyer Jaksick, Nick Clayton and Riley Smith. There will be times this year more than one will be on the field at the same time in unique formations. “We could do some crazy stuff. That’s kind of what we do here,” Avansino said. The Huskies have a brutal non-league schedule with games against Stagg (Stockton, Calif.) at South Tahoe on Saturday, Carson, Placer and Galena. The offensive identity, while fluid now, should solidify come the league opener Sept. 30 at home against Hug.
What to Expect on Defense: The creativity certainly isn’t going to be limited to the offensive side. Reno has run two-man fronts in certain packages before, but this year it will be their base: Two linemen and up to six linebackers. Avansino feels the linebacking corp. is a strength this year, and with less size up front than in years past, the plan is to get as many linebackers on the field as possible. The linebackers, and defensive unit as a whole, will be anchored by Brandon Kaho, who committed to BYU in the offseason. At the very least, the two-man front is going to create game planning problems for opposing offenses.
Team will be Successful if: The Huskies figure to be anything but conventional this year. A far cry from last year, when the team consistently ran between the tackles and relied on its defense. Reno will have to find its identity in a difficult non-league slate before playing meaningful High Desert League contests. “We want to be hitting our full stride when (league) starts … We have a lot of skill players and different things. If we can find out how to manage that and be successful by the time (league) play starts, that’s really what we’re looking for more than anything else,” Avansino said. Look for the Huskies to use a more aggressive passing attack.
Prediction: 7-3, 4-1
Coach: Jim Snelling
Experience: 8th season
2015 Record: 5-5, 3-2; 3rd in HDL; lost to Galena in regional quarterfinals
Returning Starters: 7
Key Losses: LB/RB Collin Brown, WR Brandon Aiyuk, ATH Jeremiah Lesniak, OL David Hudson
Key Returners: QB Joey Cox, QB/DB Zach Ball, RB/LB John York, OL/DL Jordan Hoover, WR/DB Tavian Cheathon, RB Derek Stevenson, ATH/LB Alec Crosby
What to Expect on Offense: Coach Jim Snelling will lean on his two quarterbacks that saw substantial time last year. Joey Cox, a pocket passer, earned the starting job last year before suffering a season-ending injury against Reed. Zach Ball, a runner, filled in more than admirably late. Whichever quarterback wins the job, the other will likely find the field at another position. The Lancers threw more than they typically do a season ago and the plan is to get back to the ground game with John York and Derek Stevenson. Expect Ball to get carries as well. That doesn’t mean McQueen will crowd the line and run out of the I-formation. Snelling said the Lancers will use “a pistol look” and try to thin out defenses.
What to Expect on Defense: The Lancers will have to break in a lot of new faces, because just two starters from 2015 return. McQueen has 24 seniors on the roster, but limited experience. Tackling was a problem for the Blue and Silver last fall. That will need to be shored up against High Desert League offenses that figure to work in space this year (specifically Reed, Spanish Springs and Reno).
Team will be Successful if: There were times last year when McQueen looked like a postseason threat: 55-31 win over Spanish Springs, near upset of Reno, etc. There were other times McQueen did not: lopsided losses to Reed and Carson, lackadaisical win over Bishop Manogue, etc. If the Lancers are to put themselves in a position to win in the postseason, they need to become more consistent on both sides of the ball. Said Snelling: “We had some flashes of brilliance last year where we looked we pretty good. Then at times, we weren’t consistent. We have to carry that through for four quarters.”
Prediction: 5-4, 3-2
Spanish Springs Cougars
Coach: Eric Borja
Experience: 3rd season
2015 Record: 3-7, 2-3; 4th in HDL; lost to Carson in regional quarterfinals
Returning Starters: 10
Key Losses: RB Travis Vargas, WR/DB Cody Schaefer, QB/WR Ian Check, P Jake Ward, OL/DL Anthony Palacious
Key Returners: QB Korbin Marcum, WR Austin Cadenhead, RB/LB Cole Drescher, RB/DE Casey Preston, LB Killian Hurley, WR/DB Isaac Ruiz, WR/DB Colton Allen, OL/DL Tyler Barats, P/PK Gray Paholke, WR/DB Kyle Smith, WR/DB Nate Miller
What to Expect on Offense: The stage is certainly set for the Cougs to be pass happy this fall. In last year’s playoff game at Carson, Borja let Korbin Marcum go and the junior signal caller went off. Marcum completed 21-of-27 passes for 320 yards and three touchdowns and didn’t turn the ball over once against the Sierra League champs. And that was without Austin Cadenhead, the team’s best receiver, on the field. Coach Eric Borja said the plan is to be a balanced offense this fall, but he will go with “whatever is working.”
What do Expect on Defense: Spanish Springs doesn’t have a lot of size, so it will once again rely on team speed. The offense should put up points, which will take pressure off the unit. And if the offense is able to build leads and force opposing offenses to throw the ball, advantage Cougars. Spanish Springs’ strength is in the defensive secondary.
Team will be Successful if: The Cougars need to find a reliable ground game. Marcum and the passing game should help loosen opposing defenses, but becoming one-dimensional is a coach’s nightmare. If the Cougs go from pass happy, to pass only, it could be a trying fall. The Cougars defense figures to be middle of the pack. An effective offense would only make life easier on that side of the ball.
Prediction: 5-4, 3-2
Coach: Carl LaGrone
Experience: 3rd season
2015 Record: 0-9, 0-5; 6th in HDL; no playoffs
Returning Starters: 9
Key Losses: OL Ronaldo Camacho, RB/CB Ja’lawnie Thomas, WR/DB Zohnathan Williams
Key Returners: LB/TE Sam Moala, RB/DB Jalan Williams, QB/DB Shane Davis
What to Expect on Offense: Creativity. Quarterback Shane Davis is eligible this year and will run the offense after sitting out last year. He was ruled ineligible after transferring from McQueen. Davis is a gifted runner and will certainly tuck it his share of times this fall. When he’s not running it, or dropping back, he’ll likely look to get the ball to Jalan Williams, who will be starting for the third season. Third-year coach Carl LaGrone will likely try any way possible to get the ball in either of those two’s hands. The Hawks will attempt to get a passing attack going, but a couple wide outs will need to emerge. No returning player had more than three receptions in 2015. Hug averaged less than 10 points per game, one of the largest reasons for the long season.
What to Expect on Defense: The Hawks don’t bring back a plethora of big names, but they do bring back several guys who saw significant time last fall. So instead of working on the playbook throughout fall camp, the Hawks have been fine tuning – a decided advantage in prep football. Sam Moala will anchor the unit from the outside linebacker/defensive end position. The Hawks gave more than 35 points per game last year, a number that will certainly need to be whittled down.
Team will be Successful if: LaGrone did not sugarcoat his analysis of 2015. “Last year, it was a bad season for us. We just weren’t ready, as players or a coaching staff. So we’re getting back to basics. And we’re improving. We’re taking it one game at a time and we expect to be there when it’s all said and done like we were a couple years ago (regional semifinal loss to Reed).” The Hawks have to get better in a lot of places to compete for a playoff spot. The Davis-Williams combo in the backfield is a start.
Prediction: 2-7, 1-4
North Valleys Panthers
Coach: Tony Doucette
Experience: 3rd season
2015 Record: 2-7, 1-4; 5th in HDL; no playoffs
Returning Starters: 5
Key Losses: RB Alex Frasier, OL Maafu Palavu, DL Leon Van Dyke, OL/DL Miguel Gonzalez, WR/DB Anthony Friend, WR/DB Cayden Kovich
Key Returners: QB Matt Sneed, LB/RB Cardayell Morgan, RB Dayjon Moore
What to Expect on Offense: Quarterback Matt Sneed is back for his senior year, but his two most dangerous weapons from a season ago (Alex Frasier and Anthony Friend) are not. Third-year coach Tony Doucette said the Panthers hope to be balanced while using more spread formations in attempt to thin defenses out. Cardayell Morgan and Dayjon Moore will be the two ball carriers to watch. Morgan only carried the ball 23 times last year for 183 yards, yet led the team in touchdowns (five). Moore will have a much larger role after spending his junior year in a crowded backfield. The success of the Panthers’ ground game will rely largely on the outcome of numerous ongoing battles to decide starting jobs on the offensive line.
What to Expect on Defense: Doucette admitted defending the rushing attack was a problem a season ago. “Our main goal is to stop the run. We weren’t very good at it last year so we’re going to align our personnel and our formations to stop the run better than we did last year.” His Panthers will have try to slow the run with a defensive line that also has multiple jobs up for grabs.
Team will be Successful if: The Panthers want to run the ball. That’s partly because they may not have a choice. North Valleys only returns 13 total receptions from last year’s squad. Defenses will key on the run game so Sneed and the offense will need to find some consistency through the air to keep opposing defenses honest. Defensively, the team struggled last year and didn’t get a big influx of talent. The Panthers will need to force some turnovers.
Prediction: 1-8, 0-5