The Friday night lights haven’t shown so bright in decades as they did last year. Coming off one of the best seasons the Sand Devils football team has had in recent memory, and with many of last year’s starters returning, head football coach Mitchell Stephens has high hopes for his team’s success this year.
The Sand Devils were the 3A North regional champions last year and Coach Stephens wants that to be the new normal for his teams going forward.
“This is the expectation from now on,” he said, when talking to the Chronicle last week. “And of course, we want to build on that. I expect our team to be 3A North champs again this year and win at least our first playoff game. We’re always looking to progress as deep into the playoffs as possible and one of these years bring home a state title. With the amount of talent we have returning this could be a very productive year for us.”
Six of last year’s offensive starters, and seven of last year’s defensive starters will be returning this year, which gives the team a big head start going into the season.
“No disrespect to last year’s group – they were hungry and determined – but we had to spend a little more time on the basics. This year we can get more complex, more integral with both our offense and defense.
“Plus, I was brand new last year. I had to get to know the team and they had to get to know me.”
Among those returning are both of last year’s starting running backs, Kele Meredith and Hayden Gracia. Meredith rushed for 1,600 yards last year.
The Sand Devils lost their quarterback, Jacob Doyle, who graduated in 2018. Doyle was an integral part of the Sand Devils’ successful run attack, as well as a key player in the defensive backfield.
Right now Coach Stephens has his eye on Robert Smith and Gabriel Gomez for the quarterback position.
“Right now it’s not clear who will be my starting quarterback,” said Coach Stephens. “We might be a few games into the season before I decide. I’ll most likely play them both at that position in the beginning.”
Coach Stephens is also watching for this year’s team leaders to emerge.
“We had a lot of leadership from last year that left,” said Coach Stephens. “Last year’s senior class played a big part in our success and a large part of that came from their leadership, which was invaluable.
“So far this year we haven’t had anyone step into that role. I’m anxious to see who it will be.”
Coach Stephens and some members of his staff have been conducting strength and conditioning sessions with their team since the Monday after school let out. The strength and conditioning training sessions are held Monday through Thursday for three or four hours. The players are not required to attend, but many of them still do. For Coach Stephens the non-required workouts and training camps are an early indicator who his committed players will be when the season begins.
Other returning players who were starters last year include Connor Begay, Nick Yazzie, Jeremy Tallsalt, Mikaio Warner, Kimball Begay, Terran Blackgoat, Cameron Billie, Brandon James, Justin Salabiye and Dainian Bitsinnie.
The Sand Devils’ first regular season game is August 17, a home game against Payson. They play a scrimmage game August 8 against Bradshaw Mountain in Prescott.