Quick – what was the prevailing theme as Greater Spokane League football teams held their first practices of the 2016 season?
In a word, optimistic.
From top to bottom in the 10-team league, there’s reason to be hopeful. In not so many words, it was expressed throughout our whirlwind travels Wednesday – from the most eastern stop at Central Valley to the South Hill rivals to northwest and north Spokane to stops in between.
Gonzaga Prep Bullpups
AT GONZAGA PREP, there’s certainly reason to return to work after the Bullpups ran the table to a 14-0 record and the State 4A championship a year ago.
G-Prep senior linebacker Taj Hoard played in some big shadows last year cast by Evan Weaver, Jack Machtolf and Conor McKenna to name a few.
Hoard didn’t mind for a couple of obvious reasons. They are his friends and the journey culminated with a golden ending.
Now he and others represent the returning experience on a team that expects to not only be in the hunt for the GSL championship but another deep run in the state playoffs.
It appears it is Hoard’s turn to step into the spotlight. After all, he’s one of just two returning starters in the Bullpups’ front seven.
“I’m not really thinking about that too much,” Hoard said. “I’m thinking about the team and how I can help the team and be as successful as last year.”
That’s music to coach Dave McKenna’s ears, who doesn’t believe the word ‘team’ comes from the word ‘individual’.
“With his experience and the fact that he played with guys who competed every day in practice,” McKenna said. “Taj’s leadership is going to be key to do what we do, a key to our success.”
Hoard knows he doesn’t have to do things by himself.
“We have a lot of athletic guys, a lot of strong guys and a lot of hungry guys who are ready to put everything they have in and help the team win,” he said.
AT ROGERS, coach Ben Cochran said his Pirates have much work to do after graduating 22, 15 of whom were starters during Rogers’ magical season highlighted by a play-in berth.
The Pirates have a solid foundation on offense, though, starting with an experienced line and a returning starter at running back, senior Eric McKay.
Cochran is crossing his fingers that his team survives until GSL 3A play begins. The middle of the schedule calls for games against G-Prep, CV and Mead.
“They’ll probably be in the top 10 (4A) in the state,” Cochran said. “We need to get through it healthy.”
McKay is excited about the challenge.
“It takes hard work,” McKay said. “If we work hard every day, it will pay off.”
Lewis and Clark Tigers
AT LEWIS AND CLARK, the Tigers find themselves having to stretch a small group of returning starters who will be asked to play full time on one side of the ball and part time on the other.
One of those players being asked to go both ways is senior running back Cameron Duncan, a full time starter last year who will be a full time starter at strong safety/outside linebacker and half time on offense.
“I enjoy playing defense,” Duncan said.
Defense has been the key to LC advancing to play-in games the last two years.
Duncan knows LC won’t be picked to finish among the top three. But he sees the Tigers holding their own.
“This year it’ll be tougher to be in the mix but we’ll be able to hang with those teams,” he said. “We won’t be killed. All the games will be close.”
Central Valley Bears
AT CENTRAL VALLEY, longtime assistant Ryan Butner takes over for Rick Giampietri.
Giampietri will be Butner’s defensive coordinator.
CV returns the most experience in the league – especially on defense with eight starters back.
Leading the defense are four-year starters defensive tackle Jordan Talafili and linebacker Travis Hawkins.
Talafili will also see time on the offensive line that is a work in progress.
“Our defense is looking really solid,” Talafili said. “It’s nice to have a lot of experience. I’m really excited about this season. It’s what we’ve been waiting for.”
AT UNIVERSITY, there’s another first-year coach in Spokane Valley as Adam Daniel takes over for Rob Bartlett.
Daniel faces a sizeable rebuilding job.
Anchoring an offense that must replace three linemen, a quarterback, running backs and wide receivers is junior two-way lineman Campbell Barrington, who has sprouted to 6-foot-6 and 280 pounds.
Barrington gave an oral commitment to Brigham Young University earlier this summer. That’s where his brother, Clark, is headed after he finishes a two-year mission in Uganda.
“I’m trying to be a leader,” Barrington said. “I’m not the most outspoken but I’m just trying to do it by example. It’ll be a fun year with (Daniel). He’s a really good coach and he makes things a family feel to the team.”
Mt. Spokane Wildcats
AT MT. SPOKANE, third-year coach Terry Cloer must replace 10 starters on offense and nine on defense.
And with a small senior class, Cloer must fill with mostly juniors and a sophomore or two.
“It was the same thing last year,” Cloer said. “We’ll need more juniors to step up.”
Returning all-league cornerback senior Jared Mehring is the top player back on defense. He will also see time at wide receiver.
AT FERRIS, the Saxons are coming off their first losing season (3-7) under coach Jim Sharkey, who enters his 11th year.
The Saxons won’t be picked to finish among the top three, but they will make big strides this fall.
Ferris will find out quickly how it stacks up when the Saxons face G-Prep in their league opener the third week.
Senior quarterback Logan Bunker, who took his share of lumps last year as did a number of returners, expects much improvement.
“What we learned last year is varsitty ball is different from freshman and (junior varsity) ball,” Bunker said. “The experience and working hard in the weight room will pay off and transfer over to this season because we all have more experience.”
North Central Indians
AT NORTH CENTRAL, second-year coach Tom Griggs is overjoyed with the turnout.
Griggs reports a turnout of 97 freshmen through seniors. Most of those come from the sophomore and freshmen classes.
Even with about 27 players dedicated to varsity-only play, Griggs plans to start at least 21 different players. The Indians return seven starters on defense and offense.
“We’ve changed the mentality. It’s been a whole overhaul,” Griggs said. “I definitely feel like we’re mentally and physically ready.”
The Indians open against three straight Great Northern League teams before league crossover games with 4A Ferris, LC and U-Hi.
“We want to build some momentum,” Griggs said. “The GNL teams aren’t slouches either.”
Griggs is looking forward to his second season.
“I’ve figured the kids out and they’ve figured me out and we’ve built some good relationships,” he said.
AT MEAD, coach Benji Sonnichsen has had nearly 10 months to prepare for his second season. That’s much better than when he was hired in mid June a year ago.
“My head’s not spinning so much,” Sonnichsen said moments after practice concluded. “The kids know what we’re doing.”
The Panthers spent most of their first practice pushing tempo. A year ago there were hiccups trying to make sure all were on the same page.
Mead returns its two starting quarterbacks in seniors Payton Loucks and Thomas Dammarell. Loucks will likely spend more time of the two passing and Dammarell’s athleticsm and speed allow him to play wide receiver when Loucks is behind center.
Dammarell will also play on defense.
Shadle Park Highlanders
AT SHADLE PARK, coach James Mace was encouraged by participation in offseason events including a player-led dead time in early August.
“They worked a lot on their own, three to four times a week,” Mace said. “So there’s a desire to be good.”
Much of the Highlanders’ success will begin with quarterback Carson Doyle, who started half the season last fall as a freshman, and junior running back Xavier Hicks.
“What I’m most pleased about since last year is we have young quality players who got a lot of experience last year,” Mace said. “So if they’re sophomores it’s almost like they’re juniors because of their experience.”
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