Adam Fisher was in a hurry.
The long-time football coach was rushing from his practice field at East Valley High School to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center’s emergency room recently to look after a player who suffered a broken and dislocated ankle during a preseason workout.
“We called 911 and had an ambulance come get him,” the coach said while hustling down Interstate 90, headed toward the Division Street exit.
The trip only heightened the sense of urgency that has seeped into the Knights’ summer workouts. A year ago EV finished the regular season in a four-way tie for first place in the seven-team Great Northern League.
“We won our last game and we were all excited about playing the tiebreaker and winning our way into the playoffs,” then-senior quarterback Taylor Watkins said over the summer. “But then we were told that there wouldn’t be a tiebreaker at all and that we were done for the season. That was the most heartbreaking moment of my career.”
Fisher is blunt when he talks about last year. Summer weightlifting was treated casually by too many players and that sense of urgency was lacking for too many players who should have been team leaders.
Thankfully, the lesson from last year was learned.
“Our summer workouts were the best we ever had,” Fisher said. “Our seniors did a great job of getting their teammates involved.”
A year ago Watkins went down with an injury after leading the Knights to a 5-0 start and junior wide receiver/defensive back J.T. Phelan stepped in to play quarterback and was ultimately named co-All-GNL offensive most valuable player honors in addition to being voted onto the All-GNL defensive first team.
This year Phelan will do a little bit of everything.
“There are so many things that J.T. can do that we’re going to line him up at wide receiver, line up him at quarterback and even line him up at running back,” Fisher said. “He’s a coach’s kid (head baseball and football assistant coach John Phelan is his dad and former Freeman cross country coach Lisa Phelan is his mom). He’s very intelligent and he just has football savvy. I’ve been here for 14 years and he’s been around the program that whole time. I don’t think he remembers very much about that first year since he was only 3, but he understands what we do as well as anyone.”
Senior Gage Burland was the team’s leading receiver a year ago with 26 catches, earning first-team All-GNL offensive honors.
In fact, Fisher said, his core four wide receivers are the best he’s had at EV and junior quarterback Connor Ramm has a strong, accurate arm.
“If we can run the ball the way we have in the past, I think our passing game is really going to be difficult to stop.”
WV young, promising
At West Valley, the numbers are what jump out at you.
Coach Craig Whitney has more than 90 players out – a goal his program reaches annually. And while the Eagles graduated a large senior class, the cupboard isn’t bare: last year’s freshman class won the league title and the Eagle junior varsity finished 5-3.
“Our youngsters are coming along just fine and guys are earning their spots,” he said. “They’ve made some very big strides, especially in the last couple of days. We moved a few kids to new positions and I think they were the right decisions.”
West Valley has two factors working in its favor: a first-class weight room for getting players prepared for the season, and a first-class speed coach to make them quicker, faster and more agile.
The weight room was part of the redesign that the school went through a few years ago.
“We take care of our weight room to make sure it doesn’t get banged up,” Whitney said. “But at the same time, we get a lot of use out of it.”
Assistant football coach Vic Wallace, who doubles as the school’s head track coach, is the speed coach.
“I would bet you money that you can’t find a better speed coach anywhere than Vic,” Whitney said. “Football and track already make a great marriage and the two programs really help each other out.”
Whitney graduated a crop of fleet-footed receivers and running backs a year ago.
“I think the group we have this year are even faster and quicker than the guys we had last year,” the coach said. “We’re going to be tough to cover and we’ll have to beat teams with that quickness.”
Helping make that speed dangerous is the fact that the team returns a young, talented offensive line.
“I think that’s going to be a team strength for the next couple years,” Whitney said. “Offensive line was a big piece of what we wanted to solidify. As it looks right now we would have no seniors starting on the O-Line and that makes us excited for the future. On defense, we’ll have one senior starting.
“If these kids can figure out how to play, we’re going to look good for the future.”