Cactus loses fourth-fifths of a dominant offensive line, its top two rushers and a passing combo that kept opposing defenses honest.
The Cobras play two defending state champions (Scottsdale Saguaro and Thunderbird) and two district rivals with title aspirations (Liberty and Peoria).
That doesn’t matter. Coach Larry Fetkenhier has seen teams lose more and maintain the school’s winning tradition. Excuses are in short supply at this Glendale campus.
“Our thing is, it’s their turn,” Fetkenhier said of this year’s varsity. “It’s those people’s jobs to not let go of what we have here.”
The Cobras intend on remaining in the hunt for a state title.
And while a lot of talent graduated, Cactus still has a premium player to lead each unit. Third-year starters Denzel Dotson (guard) and Guy Williams (middle linebacker) are among Arizona’s best at their positions.
Williams leads a defense with a veteran presence. Senior Chris Jennings, who led the team with four interceptions last year as a cornerback, will line up alongside Williams or at strong safety.
“He’s a fighter. He’s willing to make sacrifices,” Fetkenhier said. “I know we try to treat everyone the same, but I root for him.”
Senior Kameel Al-khouri grew into his role in the secondary last year, and will be a cornerstone of the defense.
Seth Dealejandro rotated in at linebacker throughout his junior season, showing promise as a pass rusher. He finished with seven sacks in 2010, good for second on the team.
Senior Mike Ledesma is back to provide some stoutness at defensive tackle. His linemates are not set in stone, except for senior Antero Taddie, who filled in mostly on the offensive line last year.
There’s not as much bulk along the line, but strong points this year are experience in the heart of the defense and speed.
“We might not be the biggest team. We are the fastest defense Cactus has ever had,” Williams said.
And Williams and Dotson and the other seniors sound ready to do what Cobras before them have done for decades — pass on the aggressive but disciplined way Cactus plays to the next generation.
“I can’t believe it’s already here. I’m a senior already,” Dotson said. “It’s awesome that we’ve had these experiences and can show the younger guys that.”
Dotson will guide four new starters along the line this season. Among them is junior center Ryan Kern, who filled in several times last season because of injuries. Fetkenhier said senior Austin Widdick looked sound in the offseason.
Dotson is in the 300-pound range with several Division I offers in his pocket. And this year, he’s an anomaly size-wise, too.
The Cobras’ line averaged 270 pounds across last year and included Ryan Nowicki (now a freshman at Penn State). This year, the rest of the unit has more normal dimensions.
“We’re not going to intimidate anybody walking on the field,” Fetkenhier said. “We’re going to have to do it with knowing where we’re supposed to be, with technique and with speed.”
On offense, some inexperienced players will be asked to step in and show this level of precision, particularly in the backfield. But that’s nothing new at Cactus.
This is the third straight year the Cobras are replacing one of Arizona’s most prolific backs. Like Allan Woods and Lashunn Norris before him, Josh Aguirre gave glimpses of promise late in his junior season.
Now Aguirre, who gained most of his 427 yards in four games last year, is expected to make a similar senior leap to the all-region backs that preceded him.
In 2009, Brody Ray brought in half a season of starting experience and led Cactus to a state title. Deke Cisco played for Cactus only in his senior year but directed an offense that put up 38 points per game in 2010.
Senior Michael Putko is the next man up. Though he was the third-string quarterback as a junior, Fetkehier said he’s shown the skill to direct the Cobras’ spread option and a willingness to lead in camp.
“His improvement in understanding the offense has been fun for me,” Fetkenhier said. “He’s stepped out of the group, stepped out of his comfort zone and not been afraid to speak out.”
When Putko drops back, he’ll have some experienced, if not prolific, targets in seniors Jacob Schaffer, Dante Edwards and Levi Jiles.
The biggest thing Cactus lacks this year is varsity game experience. Unfortunately, the team lost out on one chance to play and only has nine games.
The Cobras originally matched up with an outmanned Phoenix North Pointe Prep squad, which dropped football rather than face Cactus, Thunderbird and Moon Valley.
Months later, Fetkenhier is still steamed at the Arizona Interscholastic Association and its new scheduling system.
“They should have had the courage or integrity to go find an eighth (computer scheduled) game for us after we lost one,” he said. “They blew it, and they’re going to pass the buck.”
Of those nine games, few will be easy. The Cobras’ September finishes with a brutal four-game stretch against longtime rivals Peoria and Greenway, followed by back-to-back tests with defending state champions Scottsdale Saguaro and Thunderbird.
Then Cactus closes with home games against two new district rivals with programs on the rise, Sunrise Mountain and Liberty.
“Our schedule is tough. There’s two defending state champions. We beat them both last year, which is the crazy part,” Williams said. “Against anybody, we’ll put up a fight.”