2019 Preps football preview: Mountain Ridge

Mountain Ridge sophomore quarterback Cole Mitchell backpedals and prepares to throw over the pressure of Tolleson senior linebacker Nathan Antunez during the first half of their 6A conference football game on Sept. 14, 2018. Arulanandu returns for his junior season. [Ralph Freso/For West Valley Preps]

MOUNTAIN RIDGE MOUNTAIN LIONS

COACH: Doug Madoski (first year)

2018 RECORD: 0-10

REGION: 6A Desert Valley

OFFENSE: Spread

DEFENSE: 4-3

KEY RETURNEES: Cole Mitchell, Jr. WR/QB; Sean Sisco, Jr. OG; Desmond Lott, Sr. OT; Joseph Urias, Sr. DT; Tommy Ellis, Sr. LB; Deryk Leverage, Jr. LB; Triston Sliva, Sr. S/WR.

TOP NEWCOMER: Jeffrey Toloa, Soph. OG (transfer-Moon Valley); Tanor Loosle, Jr., S.

2019 SCHEDULE

Home games in caps

Aug. 23 at Skyline
Aug. 30 CORONA DEL SOL
Sept. 6 WESTVIEW
Sept. 13 CESAR CHAVEZ
Sept. 20 at Tolleson
Sept. 27 CHAPARRAL
Oct. 4 at Liberty
Oct. 11 at Pinnacle
Oct. 25 at Boulder Creek
Nov. 1 O’CONNOR

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

It is hard to imagine a high school football team willing to trade offseasons with Mountain Ridge. Yet the Mountain Lions enter the home stretch of 2019 season preparations with more reasons for optimism than they have had in years.

Though this team is coming off an 0-10 clunker of a season, the real nightmare did not begin until February. Then-head coach Vinny Ciliberti was arrested him Feb. 4 by Tempe Police in a case involving an attempted online sexual encounter with an undercover officer posing as an 14-year-old boy.

Young defensive coordinator Ben Kullos kept the team afloat through the spring as interim coach, and most of Ciliberti’s staff stayed. Then former Scottsdale Community College coach Doug Madoski got the job and brings the north Glendale football program a resume unlike any on this campus since Steve Belles left after 2005.

“Coach Kullos, when he took over, set a standard for discipline that’s been missing from the program for a long time. We took that and rode it into the summer. We’ve been lifting harder and bonding more as a unit. When Coach Madoski showed up it just helped us more because he was about the same ideals. We’ve been a lot more disciplined and pushing ourselves and each other harder than we have before. We’ve made a lot of progress in just two months of summer,” junior offensive tackle Sean Sisco said.

Madoski said he did not step onto campus guns blazing, preferring to set back and see what was in place.

In particular, the new coach said the work done by Kullos and junior varsity coach and varsity offensive assistant Randy Sliva before he was hired proved invaluable.

“The biggest thing for us was to keep as much normal as we possibly could, since this wasn’t a normal process,” Madoski said. “The staff has been phenomenal. Coach Kullos and Coach Sliva kept it going. Coach (Darrin) Neal came to us from California and was already in place by the time I got here. He was all in and ready to go to work. He’s won state championships at the high school level. There’s a really good staff in place already. It wasn’t like you had to come in here and clean house.”

As for the on-field product, well, the new coach knows a turnaround will take time. While 0-10 was the low point, the Mountain Lions have not posted a winning record since 2010 and have been under .500 since 2012.

That recent history made Mountain Ridge’s summer camp — from July 24-27 at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott — the official point where the program hit the reset button.

“The biggest thing is the technique and fundamentals of playing football. We are deficient at some positions at those concepts,” Madoski said. “When we hit camp the idea was we were going to strip it all down to a basic level. We assumed nobody knows anything and built from there and we got in as much as we could.”

The offense is at square one. Following a couple years in the spread the Mountain Lions are switching to a pro-style/spread hybrid Madoski is familiar with from his days coaching the Artichokes — even though most of his background and accolades stem from his defensive acumen.

More than anything, the extent of the scheme has to match the talent on hand.

“The biggest thing is watering it down some. We want to run what we actually can run. We’re not trying to fit a square peg into a round hole,” Madoski said. “It’s tough to say we’ll take Scottsdale’s offense and do the same, simply because we got to recruit for Scottsdale’s offense. Here it’s more about seeing what do we have in place.”

Right now the line is most solidified, with Sisco and senior offensive tackle Desmond Lott among the team leaders.

Lott said the offense will get a midseason boost from two transfers, sophomore guard Jeffrey Toloa from Moon Valley and junior receiver Richard Wight from Centennial.

“Coach Madoski has helped a lot, with his perspective from the junior college,” Lott said.

With 10 catches in five games last year, senior Jack Evans is the top returning receiver. Fellow seniors Triston Sliva and Kyler Stancato are expected to play more on offense this season.

The backfield is completely up for grabs. Senior Keegan Stancato and junior Cole Mitchell are still battling for the starting quarterback job.

Stancato started three games last season and fits the quarterback prototype at 6-3, 205 pounds — though he is better known as a baseball player. At 5-9, 140 pounds, Mitchell is on the opposite end of the spectrum, but he stood out in the spring as the utility man of the offense.

“Cole’s a dynamic athlete. He can throw the ball and run routes, catch the ball and block. It’s a matter of figuring out where the best fit actually is for him,” Madoski said.

Judging by the Mountain Lions’ most recent MaxPreps roster, 220-pound senior fullback Jacob Graf is the team’s top returning rusher with 57 yards.

“The blocking schemes, from an offensive line perspective, are a lot more simple and effective. It’s a lot easier to communicate with each other,” Sisco said.

Mitchell, for one, thinks the new offensive system will unlock this team’s potential.

“We have the ability to hit them hard and then mix in short passes and deep passes,” Mitchell said.

The defense has the benefit or reps and proven players and is further along this offseason. It is the second year of Kullos’ scheme, which is a 4-3 or a 4-2-5 depending on what is considered a linebacker.

With unquestioned team leader Tommy Ellis and his 92 tackles back, plus juniors Deryk Leverage and Dylan Johns back after developing into starters last year it is safe to call the defense a 4-3 — and linebacker the strong suit of the entire squad.

“I think the difference from a year from today and today is night and day. Thankfully our defense is the same and we’ve spent all offseason polishing that up. Coach Madoski has come in here and established a standard that we need to meet every day,” Ellis said.

Senior tackle Joseph Urias has been the rock of a young defensive line in the offseason.

The biggest competitions on defense are at the other line spots and cornerback. Sliva is back at free safety and Madoski said junior strong safety Tanor Loosle stood out in spring ball.

He also said Ellis, Lott, Mitchell and Sisco have been foundation pieces that led this group through the transition.

“They’ve changed dramatically. They’ve grown as people, as young men. They don’t miss the workouts. They don’t cut reps. They don’t do anything that is going to be detrimental to their success,” Madoski said.

Every moment the team spends together is crucial, and their coach is just getting used to having less time to work with a high school team.

And Madoski is attempting something fairly unprecedented. He will coach the new Maricopa Mustangs junior college program at Mountain Ridge in the mornings and Saturdays and the Mountain Lions on afternoons and Friday nights.

“You don’t have the same amount of time that you have in college. If we wanted to have a two-hour meeting we could. If we wanted to break it up separately by positions we could. The roster was big enough and we had a staff of 12 coaches that knew exactly what they were doing. Here, you may have 12 coached but it’s divvied up among three programs,” Madoski said.

Some of the coaching focus has been psychological. Even players with two years varsity experience have only been part of two wins, and Madoski said he sees players still are waiting for things to go wrong.

Given the winless 2018 season, uncommonly rough offseason and promising summer the cliche of the team’s biggest game being the season opener rings true.

“I’ve been ready to go since October, chomping at the bit. There’s a lot of wrongs that need to be righted and a lot of doubters out there that need to be proved. The sky’s the limit because we can’t go down from here,” Ellis said.

Mountain Ridge sophomore wide receiver Albin Arulanandu, right, is hit by Tolleson senior defensive back Andre Johnson after making a catch during the first half of their Division 6A football game on Sept. 14, 2018. Arulanandu returns for his junior season. [Ralph Freso/For West Valley Preps]


You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.