WILLOW CANYON WILDCATS
COACH: Justin Stangler (first season as head coach)
2017 RECORD: 4-6 (Did not qualify for playoffs)
REGION: 5A Desert West
KEY RETURNEES: Brendan “Bear” Haynes, Sr., QB; Zach Enhelder, Sr., TE/DE; Matthew McClure, Sr., OT; Jason Hickson, Sr., D/DT; Devin Leon, Sr., DE; Kody Harris, Sr., LB; Evan Valdez, Sr., CB.
NEWCOMERS TO WATCH: Dorian Singleton, Sr., WR/DB (transfer-Valley Vista); Kelly Garcia, Sr., OT/DE (transfer-Dysart).
Home games in caps
Aug. 17 CAMELBACK
Aug. 24 at Dysart
Sept. 7 SHADOW RIDGE
Sept. 14 at Valley Vista
Sept. 21 IRONWOOD
Sept. 28 at Independence
Oct. 5 AGUA FRIA
Oct. 12 GOLDWATER
Oct. 19 at Millennium
Oct. 26 at Verrado
West Valley Preps
This fall, Willow Canyon football has a lot on the line, literally and figuratively.
Longtime assistant Justin Stangler moved up to the head coaching chair and former Sunrise Mountain and Goodyear Millennium coach James Carter joined his fellow Cactus coaching staff alum. Carter will be the offensive coordinator and much like most modern teams with new coaching staffs, the Wildcats want to operate an up-tempo spread.
Yet the hopes for improvement from 4-6 in 2017 — even a first winning season and playoff appearance since 2011 — ride largely on both lines of scrimmage. And hopes are high in western Surprise because the Wildcats are unusually well stocked on both lines.
“Linemen are a commodity in high school, college and the NFL. To have some depth there is a plus because of possible injury — and for competition. The guys are working hard,” Stangler said. “We’ve got a starting offensive line and a starting defensive line and they back each other up. It’s a luxury. It’s always been that you have two or three that are starting or playing a lot both ways.”
The luxury starts on defense where four returning senior starters allow Zach Enhelder, Willow Canyon’s top talent, to concentrate on playing as a tight end and spot in as a pass rusher. Ends Devin Leon and Brody Tardy and tackles Jason Hickson and Jalen Schaefer are equal contributors, and combined for 17.5 sacks in their first year as starters.
No other unit is as stocked with veterans, but each has a senior leader. Former coach Joe Martinez and Stangler both have said Willow Canyon’s class of 2019 has the potential to be special.Now seniors, the group is well aware of its last chance.
“We have a heavy senior class this year, like our whole returning d-line. The mindset that is put on us is that it’s our responsibility for this year. We all believe that this is the class that’s going to change Willow’s culture,” senior linebacker Kody Harris said.
The offensive line also returns four starters, led by 6-3, 295-pound tackle Matthew McClure. He’s joined by senior Tanner Jenson, senior center Alvin “Bubba” Blue and Hickson, the lone two-way starter.
Dysart High transfer and tackle Kelly Garcia is waiting in the wings for region play. Then there’s Enhelder, called a top blocking tight end by teammates. The 6-3, 235-pound senior has been on the FBS recruiting radar for two years, but did not quite take off in 2017, catching 15 passes for 139 yards and five scores.
“He’s kind of put everything together. There was always a lot of potential and this year his mental and physical aspects are sharper on and off the field. It’s kind of like what happened a couple years ago with Grant Carpenter — he struggled in a few areas as a junior but as a senior he took off. I think we’ll see the same thing with Zach,” Stangler said.
The rest of the skill position players will be new, save for senior quarterback Bear Haynes.
Haynes said the new offense features different pass plays and is more user friendly. Last year, the quarterback said the team was adding too much verbiage.
“We just made things flow better. It’s a typical spread that we’ve modified for the guys we have,” Stangler said. “I think he’s a lot more comfortable in his role this year. He has a better grasp of the offense.”
Stangler said two seniors look primed breakout years. Ben Carter, a tall target at wideout.
Senior tailback Zachary Swinbourne had big games each of the last two years against Phoenix Sierra Linda, but was glued to the bench otherwise. Stangler said he has a better grasp of the offense this year. Senior Bryan Puiu will get a number of carries also.
Dorian Singleton, who was to be Valley Vista’s top returning receiver, transferred in and could lead the Wildcats’ corps in the second half of the season.
Harris leads the linebackers and handles most of the defensive calls.Senior Evan Valdez, a starting safety in 2017, moves to corner this year. Senior strong safety Brandon Cook is a newcomer with promise.
“It’s his first year of playing but he’s an athlete. He’s a wrestler. He’s bought in. We need athletes, and we can teach them, honestly,” Harris said.
Some aspects of the program are new, even to the veterans. Stangler and Carter had the first eight months of 2018 to put their stamp on the program.
“At the beginning it was a culture shock. Now we sprint everywhere,” Haynes said.
While interest is growing in the program on and off campus, Stangler said this year’s varsity squad is not deep.
Knowing that, and that previous Wildcat teams were competitive with most opponents only to fall off in the fourth quarter, has only intensified the conditioning regimen.
“I think this is the hardest summer we’ve ever had, in terms of work — the speed training, lifting and yoga at 6:30 every morning,” Harris said.
While every team has specific non-region and region goals, few have such clear objectives for both halves of the schedule.
The Wildcats will be favored in their Friday home opener against Phoenix Camelback. Over the next three games, they will become the first Dysart Unified School District team to play the other three high schools in the district.
The Aug. 24 game at Dysart High School is Willow Canyon’s first game against the Demons since 2006. Then the Wildcats seek revenge against Shadow Ridge and Valley Vista.
Harris said along with making the playoffs, his primary goal is to be part of the best team in Surprise — which Willow Canyon cannot claim to be since 2010.
“High school football is competitive and you’ve got kids that want to go where they want to go. I think it’s good for Surprise and the entire district that we play everyone. We’re in the unique situation that we’re in 5A so we can play both 6A and 4A. We got the draw of playing everybody. Dysart’s kind of been left out,” Stangler said.
The reconstituted Desert West Region gives the program hope after two years battling in vain against heavyweights Centennial and Liberty in the Northwest. Stangler said he does not know a lot about the new league foes, but believes the final two games with Buckeye Verrado and Goodyear Millennium loom large.
Based on recent history, the Vipers would be the favorite. But Verrado’s heavy graduation losses give hope to Goldwater, Millennium and Willow Canyon.
“I think that everybody in the region is going to look at it and say we can win it. I think every game can go either way. I don’t think there’s a clear-cut leader, like Centennial and Liberty were,” Stangler said. “I think it’s going to come down to the last week to determine the region champ.”
While Stangler will find out a lot about his first team soon, He likes this group’s unselfish nature.
“This is probably the closest group of seniors we’ve had. We had a senior day and did a bunch of activities like 3-on-3 water basketball. It’s really nice to not have issues where you have cliques of guys. They’re all one group and stick up for each other,” Stangler said.
The coach said these seniors are concerned about how younger kids perceive them.
And the common theme of the coach and his captains is to set a new standard.
“Everyone saw the new region and said this is Willow’s chance,” Haynes said. “Getting to the playoffs would change the entire culture of the program. We were a team that people circled on their schedules and figured it would be a win.”