The defense will carry a heavy early-season burden for a Mountain Ridge team that lost all six of its skill position starters.
Fortunately for the Mountain Lions, the heart of that unit enters its third year as starters. Linebacker Spencer Hammitt and safeties Cameron Fortuna and Chase Russell are team captains and linebacker Taylor Rockwood was among the team’s leading tacklers in 2009 and 2010.
“Our standouts are our linebackers. We have all three returning and we’re all above 200 pounds,” Hammitt said.
Hammitt, named first-team all-region in his sophomore and junior seasons, paces the defense and joins Rockwood and fellow senior Alex Mugar in the linebacking corps. Mountain Ridge entered the offseason with an odd problem — too many linebackers.
After using a 3-5-3 look last year, the Mountain Lions are returning to a conventional 4-3 look. So two more veteran linebackers, seniors Jeff Bonham and Jared Moses, have converted to rush ends this year.
“We did one year where we went to a 3-5 and we felt it didn’t really fit what we needed to do. Our linemen are not big, but they’re very athletic. (The 4-3) works with us with line stunts and blitz packages, so we felt more comfortable in the 4-3.”
Position battles are expected at both defensive tackle and cornerback spots.
And position battles are the theme on offense, where only two starting linemen return. Junior running back Tre Favors, P.J. Sparks’ backup the past two seasons, is the only other player with a firm grasp on a starting spot.
Favors picked up 225 yards on 39 carries in 2010 and is the offensive captain this year. He’s counted on to replace an 1,100-yard rusher and maintain the offensive balance Mountain Ridge developed last year.
“We lost a good player in P.J.,” Green said. “But we brought Tre up as a freshman. He’s going to open up a lot of eyes this year. He’s a very good runner between the tackles with good speed. He fits our attack really well.”
Junior guard Reed Buce and senior tackle Vince Vasquez give the Mountain Lions experienced building blocks on the interior line. Green said he’s confident in several linemen coming up from JV, including center Eddie Giannini.
As it is with most teams, the most intriguing competition is behind center. Juniors Neiman Sneed, the started for most of the junior varsity’s 8-1 season in 2010, and Pono Ayers, who moved in from Corona, Calif., have shown well in the summer.
“Neiman is very athletic. He got hurt in the Deer Valley game after scoring a touchdown, but he did very good in the spring and summer for us,” Green said.
Once the new starter is picked, he’ll have an all-new group of targets to throw to in the Mountain Lions’ four-wideout spread attack. Wes Meredith, the leading receiver as a junior in 2010, transferred to rival O’Connor this summer.
The player most likely to grab Meredith’s role is also a transfer. Sophomore Keesean Green was one of several players to leave the St. Mary’s program in the offseason.
Green and junior Kylen Green, who are not related, have stood out among the young receivers and will factor into the cornerback duel as well. A mixture of varsity, junior varsity and freshman returnees are vying for the other spots.
“We’ve actually got a lot of young talent, skill-position wise. They should be good for us this year,” Hammitt said.
The kids will be thrown into the fire early. The Mountain Lions’ two toughest tests may well be their first two games, Aug. 26 at Phoenix Brophy Prep and Sept. 2 against Chandler Basha.
That’s nothing new, but this year the quality of opponents doesn’t drop off after that early start. Mesa Mountain View is a Week 4 trip. District foes Boulder Creek and O’Connor also are battling for playoff position, and visit in the middle of the schedule.
And the Oct. 21 trip to Avondale Westview means facing another team at the level of Brophy and Basha late in the season.
“Our first three games are always against the best. Last year, we played Mountain View, Hamilton and Gilbert,” Green said. “The thing that’s going to be different is we’re going to have to maintain that all year. We’re not going to drop down and play Division II schools, the Kingmans and Goldwaters. It’s going to get us better prepared going into the playoffs. That’s what I’m happy about.”
In that regard, Brophy’s 24-17 first-round win on Mountain Ridge’s field still stings.
The Mountain Lions earned the No. 4 seed in the old 5A-I classification, but played the bottom two teams in the Northwest Region entering the playoffs. Brophy was a .500 team but played in the loaded Fiesta Region.
But the juniors and seniors returning from 2010 believe a breakthrough was made during the 8-3 campaign.
They intend on continuing the standards set by last year’s large senior class in terms of preparation, unity and attitude.
“We worked hard last year. It hadn’t been that intense in a while,” Russell said. “We’ve carried that on from last year’s group.”