Changes and COVID-19 easy could have derailed the Shadow Ridge football team during this unusually long and difficult offseason.
Instead, as kickoff nears, the Stallions appear invigorated by a new approach and galvanized by a chance to show what its senior class, in particular, can do.
First-year coach Sean Hegarty said the program is growing with approximately 180 players spread over three levels. And virtually every varsity player that could return did.
“I think the kids have weathered the storm extremely well. And the last couple of weeks have been exciting for them because it’s been more positive the last two weeks than it has all summer,” Hegarty said on Sept. 16.
Hegarty said he was able to spend his first two months establishing a relationship with the players before the virus shut schools down. Once they returned to workouts, the Stallions rotated groups in the weight room Mondays through Fridays, with six groups in the morning and four in the evening.
With those large numbers, Shadow Ridge had a waiting list for varsity, for JV and for freshmen. Hegarty said the team took a very holistic approach and took advantage of whatever it was able to do that stayed within the scope of the restrictions.
Senior running back Jacob Thurman said throughout the summer he knew at any second the season could get shut down. But the senior class kept the faith.
“We never really thought we weren’t going to have a season. In our minds, we always kept the mindset that we were going to have a season and we’re going to be perfectly prepared for the season,” Thurman said.
The decision to maintain the fall calendar — starting football practice in areas with acceptably low levels of COVID-19 cases Sept. 8 and games on Oct. 2 — was made by the Arizona Interscholastic Association board on Sept. 2. That was cutting it close for one Stallions senior.
“There was a lot of doubt. I was planning to go to Utah if there wasn’t a season, and I had a week of time to choose. Within that week, that’s when the AIA made its decision. There was a lot of stress for a lot of players in that time,” senior free safety Houston Mitton said.
He is happy to stick around and said this senior class knows it can make great things happen.
Shadow Ridge junior wide receiver Zachary Sutton catches an 86-yard touchdown pass against Westview during the second half of their 6A football game on Oct. 11, 2019. Sutton is the Stallions' leading returning receiver. [Ralph Freso for West Valley Preps]
That feeling started not as freshmen, but as sophomores on a 2018 junior varsity team that finished 8-0-1. Mitton said the JV success bonded this group and allowed it to trust in each other.
They formed the bulk of the starting unit that led Shadow Ridge to a 6-4 record in 2019, the varsity’s first winning season since 2013. Now as seniors, they start with three massive building blocks up front.
At first blush, tackles Jack Chappelle (6-5, 295) and Justin Hernandez (6-4, 295), and guard Chris Stoica (6-3, 265) seem better suited for last year’s straight-ahead I formation and pro-set offense than Hegarty’s spread. But the new coach said the veteran big men displayed the intelligence and work ethic to pick up the new scheme.
“It’s been wonderful to see them make that transition to the new scheme. They’re truly understanding the concepts that are being taught to them on a daily basis. Footwork has changed and a lot of things have changed. They’ve truly bought in,” Hegarty said.
Thurman made some noise as a fullback in the old offense, springing Michael Clark for 1,272 yards and rolling up 157 yards against La Joya when Clark was injured. This time around, the Stallions look unlikely to run the ball twice as many times as they pass it.
Even if he gets less carries than his predecessors, Thurman sounds OK with it.
“The returning varsity players were able to get the offense quicker because we worked in that varsity setting a year before and were acclimated. I feel like we got a good grip of it,” Thurman said. “With the talent we have this year and this new offense we have that’s completely different, it really opens everything up and gives us more options. With our new offense and defense and new players, I think we can win the region.”
Thurman and his coach also are comfortable with divvying up those carries more after being impressed by sophomore Anthony Garcia.
Junior Austin Simonton (345 pounds) and sophomore Logan Getejanc (240 pounds) are newcomers that can add some beef up front.
Receivers will have more touches, and top two receivers Zach Sutton (a senior) and Isaac Yates (a junior) are back. Both also will play some defensive back, where Yates started last year.
Junior receiver/cornerback Robert Grier played some in 2019 and has impressed this summer, as has sophomore receiver/linebacker Rocco Bonnini.
Quarterback is the most unsettled spot on the offense. Junior Seth Gallardo transferred from Liberty last season, and is battling with junior Micah Hendricks and sophomore Kaden Zordani for the starting nod.
“We’ve got some kids that when we do scrimmage Ironwood, we’ll see who steps out from that,” Hegarty said.
Returning assistant Chad Mitton is the co-defensive coordinator along with Will Elet, who came along with Hegarty from Ironwood.
The plan is for a more aggressive defense.
“We’ve got a lot of defensive talent back and they’re getting used to the new way we play,” Hegarty said.
Again it starts with the big boys. Senior tackle Carson McNutt holds the line at 275 pounds and is the second-best returning tackler behind Mitton.
Westview junior quarterback Nico Vasko (10) eludes a sack by Shadow Ridge junior defensive lineman Dylan Jones (40) during the second half of their 6A football game on Oct. 11, 2019. [Ralph Freso/For West Valley Preps]
Senior Dylan Jones is another a returning starter that can join McNutt inside or swing out to defensive end.
Senior Luis Ochoa is the top returning linebacker, and 225-pound junior linebacker Leo Palelei has impressed since moving in from Tennessee.
Thurman said practices got better and more purposeful once AIA announced the intent to stay on track for an Oct. 2 start to the season.
Schedule-wise the Stallions kept their two opening home games with Chandler Basha and Mesa Westwood. They lost Westview and Canyon View and added Phoenix Mountain Pointe.
Mitton in particular likes starting against a 6A playoff team from the East Valley.
“I enjoy the competition and going up against good teams. It helps me and my teammates out to gauge where we stand,” Mitton said. “Playing on varsity I learned how different the game was. I learned the difference of playing someone that runs a 4.4 instead of a 4.56.”
Half the region is the same, and Thurman said he is looking forward to the chance to avenge losses to La Joya and Valley Vista.
The new 6A Region 7 is full of teams like Shadow Ridge — with large numbers of returning players looking forward to a breakout season. Boulder Creek, Mountain Ridge,
O’Connor and Valley Vista also fall into that category.
“Everybody’s fighting for those postseason berths and trying to elevate to Westside dominance. That’s why I really think it’s going to be a dogfight. We’re excited for the challenge,” Hegarty said.