A glance at the HDL’s six programs
Is the No. 1 seed up for grabs?
Some believe so. Others expect Tony Amantia to lead the Raiders to a league title in his first season replacing Ernie Howren. Reed has won the High Desert League title every year since the 4A North split into its current format before the 2012 season, compiling a 23-2 record in league play.
If there is a team that will dethrone the Raiders from their perch atop in the HDL, it’s likely Reno and four-star linebacker/running back/quarterback/kicker/punter Brandon Kaho. Or perhaps a dark horse will emerge.
Here’s a look at the six HDL programs heading into the 2017 season:
Coach: Tony Amantia
Experience: First season
2016 Record: 11-2, 5-0; First in HDL; Lost to Damonte Ranch in regional title game
Returning Starters: 12
Key Losses: RB/LB Tre Bussey, WR/RS Robert Ferrel, WR Michael Spivack, OL/DL Stein Otuafi, OL/DL Lucas Bickford, OL/DL Leo Valdivia, LB Matt Garcia, DB Caleb Ariaz, DB Nick Striejewske
Key Returners: QB Cameron Emerson, RB/DE Josiah Schmidt, OL/DL Mike Delgado, DE Eric Schmitz, TE Grant Cotter, LB Jake Olsen, DB George Moreno, LB Matt Johnson, WR/DB Isaac McCoy, LB Kennedy Davis, OL/DL Charles Tuavao
What to Expect on Offense: About the only thing that changed with Reed’s spread offense is the hand signals. After all, another staff in Northern Nevada is pretty familiar with them now. First-year coach Tony Amantia was adamant about keeping the Raiders’ productive spread offense intact when he was hired and will look to senior quarterback Cameron Emerson to keep the chains moving. A strong case could have been made for Emerson to be a first-team all-league pick last year as he compiled more than 3,200 yards of offense, was responsible for 45 touchdowns, and completed over 73 percent of his passes with just six interceptions on 209 attempts. His two favorite targets in Robert Ferrell and Michael Spivack graduated, so it will be worth watching what happens to the passing game as Isaac McCoy and Grant Cotter become Emerson’s go-to guys. The ground game will always be the true calling card of Reed’s offense and remains in good hands with running back Josiah Schmidt. Reed lost a lot on the offensive line, though.
What to Expect on Defense: If not for Reno’s beastly linebackers Siaosi Finau and Brandon Kaho, defensive end Eric Schmitz would likely be the front runner for Defensive Player of the Year. Few in the region matched his productivity a season ago as he racked up a team-high 7.5 sacks and forced three fumbles, recovering two. He’ll be joined on the line by Charles Tuavao, who has the biggest jersey number (No. 99) and biggest jersey. He stands 6-5 and weighs 314 pounds. The linebackers return a lot of experience. The secondary will undoubtedly miss safety Caleb Ariaz. Ariaz was the best defensive back in Northern Nevada last year and the rudder of the defense.
Overview: The talent level at Reed has done anything but fall off a cliff. So, that leaves the biggest question surrounding the team’s response to the changes in January. Do the Raiders use Ernie Howren’s move as motivation and embrace their new coaches? Or do they let the move demoralize them and derail their season before it ever began? Reed’s season depends on how the team decides to answer. The Raiders’ most intriguing game of the year is in week 5 when they go to Bishop Manogue to see their old coach wearing green and yellow, but their most important is three weeks later when they go to Reno to play the Huskies and four-star (probably could be five-star) prospect Kaho.
Prediction: 8-2, 5-0
Coach: Dan Avansino
Experience: 15th season
2016 Record: 10-2, 4-1; Second in HDL; Lost to Damonte Ranch in regional semifinals
Returning Starters: 7
Key Losses: QB/DB Nick Clayton, WR/DB Will Barnard, WR/DB Will Hart, OL/DL Max Heywood, OL/LB Harrison Murray, OL/DL Austin Lemons, DB Payton Talbot, QB Drake Vestbie
Key Returners: RB/LB Brandon Kaho, OL/DL Logan Hutcherson, LB/RB Reese Taylor, RB/LB Siaosi Finau, OL Trey Hamilton, TE/LB Keegan Feroah, WR/DB Evan Moore
What to Expect on Offense: Coach Dan Avansino morphs his offense annually to utilize his players of varying skillsets. “We’re kind of like Frankenstein, it’s a little bit of everything,” he said. “(It’s) sewn on pieces from everywhere, just trying to find ways to get our best players in the best positions.” There’s no question who his best player is this fall. Senior Brandon Kaho seemingly played every position on the field last year and verbally committed to BYU before his name blew up this summer and his final five now includes Alabama. “Brandon’s talents are amazing. He was the all-league kicker, the all-league punter, he threw probably 30 passes, he caught probably 20 passes, he ran the ball a million times … He’s like a swiss army knife,” Avansino said. “We plan on utilizing just about every talent he has again, we kind of try to do that for every one of our players.” Kaho will share carries with fellow senior Reese Taylor, who also played a large role as a junior. Senior quarterback Sawyer Jaksick will add yet another wrinkle to the 4A North’s most diverse offense. When Reno did pass last year, it was often out of the pocket. Jaksick will often work outside the pocket and provide a constant threat with his legs. The offensive line is young and athletic for the most part, but does return a couple starters in Trey Hamilton (6-5, 260 pounds) and Logan Hutcherson.
What to Expect on Defense: Reno’s offense isn’t the only side of the football that flashes unique formations. Sometimes the Huskies only have one or two down linemen and that will occasionally be the case again this season. With Kaho expected to play linebacker at the next level, it should come as no surprise that the second level of the defense is Reno’s strength. It’s not just Kaho though. Also returning for Reno is reigning High Desert League Defensive Player of the Year Siaosi Finau, Keegan Feroah and Taylor. They’ll be an active bunch, blitzing nearly 90 percent of the time. “Our identity is to be aggressive defensively,” Avansino said. “That’s who we are.” The ability to get after the quarterback could help bring along a defensive secondary “that is a little bit young, but talented.”
Overview: Everyone in Northern Nevada, and even diehard fans for specific collegiate programs around the country, will be looking at Kaho this fall. It’s the direct result of the senior being the most highly touted prep prospect ever from Northern Nevada, although Damonte quarterback Cade McNamara is quickly trying to dethrone him. He can do it all on a football field, but Avansino doesn’t want him to have to do everything for the Huskies. “Brandon is going to be a big part of what we do, no question. He’s not going to be the only part,” Avansino said. “That wouldn’t be fair to him, or our team.” Reno is the best program in Northern Nevada without a league title in the last five years, due solely to the fact it plays in the same league is Reed. The Huskies are 41-17 over that span with a 1-4 record against the Raiders. Some think with Ernie Howren’s departure from Reed to Bishop Manogue, this is the year the Huskies dethrone the Raiders. If they are take the HDL No. 1 seed to the postseason, Avansino believes it will come down to comradery. “I think our biggest challenge, truthfully … will be ourselves and how we come together,” he said. “Reno is a very diverse socioeconomic school, where we have some very affluent students and some low income and people from various backgrounds. The challenge is going to get people feeling like we’re a single unit working together.” The schedule will also provide a challenge. Five of the first six and six of the first eight games will be on the road. That includes two trips to California.
Prediction: 8-2, 4-1
Coach: Jim Snelling
Experience: Ninth season
2016 Record: 3-7, 2-3; Fourth in HDL; Lost to Damonte Ranch in regional quarterfinals
Returning Starters: 5
Key Losses: RB/LB John York, WR/DB Jaydon Gold, OL/DL Ricky Vera, OL/DL Jordan Hoover, QB Zach Ball
Key Returners: TE/LB Alec Crosby, LB/RB Jason Hermin, WR/RB Hunter Mathews, OL Josh Lenzora, DB Derek Stevenson
What to Expect on Offense: Largely out of necessity, McQueen went to the air a lot last year with quarterback Zach Ball, and occasionally Joey Cox. Coach Jim Snelling hopes to change that this fall. “We’re going to try to be a little more balanced,” he said. “We have some pretty good weapons both running the ball and catching the ball as well.” Ball and Cox both graduated and either Matt White or Dominique Stallworth will take the snaps this year. White, a senior, brings more experience and familiarity with the offense. Stallworth is the better athlete and can make plays with his legs. It’s possible both see time this year regardless of who starts Friday’s opener at home against Lassen. Strong wide receiver play has become a staple in the Lancers’ offense and this season won’t be any different. Two years ago, it was Brandon Aiyuk. Last year, it was Jaydon Gold. This year, it will be seniors Kenyon Perez and Drew Cerio. “Both are very good receivers,” Snelling said. The running back position will be handled by a committee of junior transfer JD Kolb, junior Nate McEntire and senior Josh Meyers. Standing 6-5 and listed at 235 pounds, senior left tackle Josh Lenzora highlights an offense line that boasts more size than it did a season ago.
What to Expect on Defense: McQueen’s staff is trying to find/create depth on the defensive line to prevent the big boys from playing both ways. A couple names to watch on the front include sophomore nose tackle Lapoi Valele, who’s pushing 300 pounds, and senior defensive end Cole Flores. Flores is listed at 6-2, 185 pounds and is a plus athlete. He’s one of the best lacrosse players in Northern Nevada and will likely have the opportunity to play that sport at the next level. The linebackers are the deepest unit on the defense. McQueen goes two deep at almost every linebacker position with minimal drop off. The Lancers also have depth at the safety position with less certainty at cornerback. “We have great overall speed,” Snelling said. “And I like the attitude the kids have. They’re smart kids that are aggressive kids.”
Overview: McQueen is constantly in the 4A North playoffs. It’s also constantly been a short trip. The Lancers are riding a five-game postseason losing streak going back to 2012, when as a No. 4 seed, they stunned No. 1 seed Galena in the quarterfinals then fell 21-20 to Damonte Ranch in the semis. Since that one-point loss, it’s been four-straight first-round exits. To stick around longer in the postseason, Snelling said the team simply can’t be as sporadic. “We have to play consistent,” he said. “We have to make sure we’re consistent the whole year long. We can’t be up and down. Obviously, the last couple years we’ve exited the playoffs way earlier than we’d hoped to. We have to take it one game at a time.” An improved running game will ease the burden on both the defense, and either of the quarterbacks who will be new the starting role. It will also factor in achieving the consistency Snelling is looking for. The running game typically travels and will not be not be affected by the wind that often whips through McQueen’s exposed hilltop campus in Northwest Reno.
Prediction: 3-6, 3-2
Spanish Springs Cougars
Coach: Eric Borja
Experience: Fourth season
2016 Record: 5-5, 3-2; Third in HDL; Lost to Douglas in regional quarterfinals
Returning Starters: 10
Key Losses: QB Korbin Marcum, WR/DB Austin Cadenhead, RB/DE Casey Preston, WR/DB Colton Allen, RB/LB Cole Drescher, WR/DB Maleik Lariviere, WR/DB Kyle Smith, OL/DL Tyler Barats, OL/DL Kyle Engelken
Key Returners: RB/DB Gabby Ordaz, RB/LB Colby Preston, OL/DL Chase Martin, P/PK Gray Paholke, OL/DL Sam Williams, QB Frankie Tiernan, OL/DL Ryan Fauls, WR/DB Donte Smith
What to Expect on Offense: The Cougars threw the ball 307 times in 2016. That number will go the way of a plastic bottle cap in a campfire. Not only did Spanish Springs lose the best pocket passer in the 4A North, outside Damonte’s Cade McNamara, it also lost its top five receiving options. Throw in the most prolific returning offensive weapon is senior running back Gabby Ordaz, and it makes sense coach Eric Borja wants to run more this fall. Ordaz, a smaller and shifty back, will get most of the carries. When he’s not, he will be spelled by Colby Preston who runs with a more bruising style. That’s not to say the Cougars are completely abandoning the passing game. Senior Frankie Tiernan will take over behind center. He filled in admirably for Marcum in last year’s playoff loss at Douglas, completing 17-of-24 passes for 125 yards. He will throw to an entirely new group of receivers, led by 6-4 sophomore Jordan Dudick and senior Donte Smith.
What to Expect on Defense: Spanish Springs once again lacks size up front. Chase Martin (6-3, 220 pounds) will be one of the constants for a group that has several roles to fill. The linebackers are the most established unit of the defense. Killian Hurley will direct that group from the middle linebacker position. Listed at 6-1, 230 pounds, he’s one of two non-linemen on the team north of 200 pounds. The secondary is entirely green. Borja said the defensive backfield is talented, but in need of game experience before facing the likes of the proficient passing attacks from Damonte Ranch (week 4) and Reed (week 11).
Overview: Turnover at key positions is a reoccurring theme in prep football. It affects some programs more than others on any given year, and this year, Spanish Springs is one of the squads looking for several new players to make things happen with the football in their hands. Ordaz was the starting running back as a junior and could potentially play an even larger role this fall after leading the team in carries, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns. The optics for the 2017 Cougars are far more promising if the running game can find consistency and prevent all the pressure being placed on a new-look passing game. Spanish Springs has moved one spot up in the standings in all three of Borja’s seasons, but after finishing third last year, will have to battle with McQueen for that third spot before shifting focus on catching Reed or Reno.
Prediction: 4-6, 2-3
Coach: Carl LaGrone
Experience: Fourth season
2016 Record: 1-7, 1-4; Fifth in HDL; No playoffs
Returning Starters: 9
Key Losses: QB/RB/DB Shayne Davis, RB/DB Jalan Williams, OL/DL Junior Pousima, LB/TE Sam Moala, DB/WR Tayshawn Clayton, OL/DL Will Pule
Key Returners: LB/RB Caleb Tau Tolliver, DB/WR Brendan Garner, OL/DL Motu Amotai, OL/DL Finau Malafu, OL/DL Rigo Grajeda
What to Expect on Offense: It’s not going to be complicated. “We’re going to be physical and run the ball,” coach Carl LaGrone said. Hug graduated a lot at the skill position, but brings back four starting offensive lineman (Rigo Grajeda, Finau Malafu, Motu Amotai and Kenneth Martinez), so LaGrone plans to play to his strengths. “They know what they’re doing and what to expect, so there hasn’t been a lot of reteaching things,” he said. “This summer was about getting back to the basics, so that was good for them.” The quartet of returners will try to clear lanes for Caleb Tau Tolliver, who is listed at 6-2, 195 pounds. He’s the team’s leading returning rusher after averaging 7.3 yards per carry as a junior and will be tasked with replacing Shayne Davis’ productivity. Davis ran for 637 yards and six touchdowns last year. The quarterback position was up for grabs at the start of camp. Senior Conrad Tyler was battling with sophomore Marcus Perry. Both are pocket passers, something new to the Hug offense.
What to Expect on Defense: Just as the Hug offense will be dictated by play up front, so will the defense. Grajeda, Malafu, Amotai, Martinez and Moices Aguirre-Olivares will be the first line for a unit that played sneakily well last year. Removing outcomes against the two best offenses in the 4A North last year (Damonte Ranch and Reed), the Hawks held opponents to nearly 22 points a game. That number jumps 30.6 points a night when including those outcomes. Brendan Gardner, Jordan Davis and Dale Chapman will highlight the defensive backfield.
Overview: Hug had large senior and sophomore classes a season ago. The senor class is obviously gone, but the sophomores are now juniors and expected to not only take a step forward, but really carry the 2017 Hawks. Nearly all of last year’s skill players were seniors and new names must now step into large roles. “We’re going to have to grow up quickly and our skill guys are going to have to step up,” LaGrone said. “Our skill guys are, for the first time in awhile, going to be a place where we don’t have a lot of depth. Those guys are going to have to step up really quick and find out how to get into the end zone and stop big plays on the defensive side.”
Prediction: 1-9, 1-4
North Valleys Panthers
Coach: Tony Doucette
Experience: Fourth season
2016 Record: 0-9, 0-5; Sixth in HDL; No playoffs
Returning Starters: 6
Key Losses: QB Matt Sneed, RB/DE Dajon Moore, DB Gage Millard, FB/LB Oscar Romo, RB/DB Jeremiah Waltman, K Hugo Montelongo, TE/LB Sheldon Martin, RB/LB Cardayell Morgan
Key Returners: WR Jalen Weaver, QB/WR/DB Breyden Beaumont, OL/DL Juan Lopez, DB Jody Vice, OL/DL Donovan Torres
What to Expect on Offense: Former Nevada quarterback and current Toronto Argonaut Cody Fajardo worked with several local quarterbacks this offseason. Among them were North Valleys seniors Breyden Beaumont and Jason Williams. The pair of seniors entered fall camp in a battle for the starting spot and coach Tony Doucette said there isn’t much that distinguishes the two. Both are able runners (whoever losses out on the job will move to wide receiver) and both are capable of moving the chains through the air in the Panthers’ spread offense. “We’ll be throwing the ball a little bit more than we did the last couple years,” Doucette said. Part of the reason for the increased faith in the passing game, along with Beaumont and Williams, is the depth at the wide receiver position. “Five or six” different receivers will catch passes this fall, highlighted by Jalen Weaver and Tyler Jones. Junior Garrett Pennington spent last season at the junior varsity level, but will earn many of the carries this season running behind an entirely new offensive line. “They are a young group … but they are a tough group,” Doucette said. “They’re big. They’re strong.”
What to Expect on Defense: As a winless season would suggest, defense was an issue last year. The Panthers gave up just short of 49 points per game while recording just four sacks and forcing just one turnover (a fumble recovery) all season. It’s difficult to imagine a massive turnaround, but the Panthers do bring back some experience, particularly on the defensive line where half of the team’s six returning starters will play. The linebacking corps will be entirely green. There was an open competition for the starting spots going into fall camp. The Panthers also bring back both of last year’s starting cornerbacks in Jody Vice and Beaumont. “Those guys really played well for us last year,” Doucette said. “We’re excited to see what they do after another year of growth.” Beaumont received all-league honorable mention honors in 2016.
Overview: Things will get much easier for the Panthers next year when they slide down to the 3A ranks. First, they must maneuver one last season playing the likes of Reed and Reno in league play. “We just addressed it as controlling what we can control, and that’s giving our best effort in practice every single day and getting better,” Doucette said of the school’s looming realignment. “For our seniors, it doesn’t really affect them … For our juniors, we just want them to make sure they are competing and doing the best they can. We think they’re a pretty talented group.” The improved passing game will certainly help, but getting into the win column in 2017 will require a leap defensively. The Panthers’ best shot at a win last year came in week seven at home against Spanish Springs. North Valleys led 35-19 with six minutes left, only to give up 19 straight points in the waning minutes and lose 38-35. Having the talent to win is one thing. Acquiring the mental fortitude to pull out close games is another. And that’s the largest hurdle the Panthers must clear. “You really can’t say you didn’t learn much from a winless season,” Doucette said. “We really let one against Spanish Springs slip away, that we thought we should’ve won. After that, it was kind of downhill for the rest of our season. We’re looking forward to the changes this year and competing at the 4A level.”
Prediction: 0-9, 0-5