The COVID-19 stoppage of spring and summer football, along with a few potential players opting out of the 2020 football season hurt the Raymond S. Kellis football team that looks to beat last season’s 1-9 record.
However, boasting a roster of leaders coach Stephen Hogg trusts more than any in his three-year tenure and a new set of opponents, the Cougars feel 2020 could be a season for noticeable improvement.
Hogg called the summer a “nightmare.” In late June, the Varsity/JV squad and freshman team each alternated two days of weight and field training before nearly the entire state was shut down. In July, while other schools were in the weight room, the Cougars shut even that down for several weeks.
Hogg said most of the team is enrolled in his weight-training class, and he simply assigned workouts to do at home or in a gym if possible.
Beginning on Labor Day, the Cougars began formal practices, gradually working in more contact each day. There are still more hurdles facing Kellis before it can take the field in a game, though.
“We do a whole check-in process which has added about 30 minutes to our day, where they get a temperature taken and we ask questions and make sure they’re being safe when they come on the field,” Hogg said.
“But I think we’re still on for our scrimmage as of now, and when the kids get a taste of the live action it will be good for them.”
Hogg said the 2020 varsity and JV roster is merely around 50 kids, a number many 5A schools beat with their varsity squads alone. His faith in the students that did sign up this season, though, is stronger than ever.
“We have a small senior class, low numbers in general, but the ones we do have, their football IQ and commitment to everything is a lot higher than what it had been my first two years as a head coach,” Hogg said.
Raymond S. Kellis offensive linemen participate in drills at practice. [Eric Newman/For West Valley Preps]
Part of the Cougars’ hopes for more wins in 2020 comes from a renewed confidence in their offense. A unit that never scored more than 20 points in 2019 and reached double-digits only twice in ten games could actually prove an asset this season.
Among the offense’s potential strengths are a line that the coaching staff said is more stout than before and an improved group of wide receivers.
Senior offensive tackle Hector Salazar and junior Ezekiel Pacheco are back to lead the line.
“It’s a lot of speed and good hands, so I think that will help us score more,” said senior Aiden Kirkwood, a linebacker that will look to also catch passes in 2020.
In charge of leading the offense is junior quarterback Isaac Matthews. Last season’s JV starter, who has yet to take a varsity snap, is slotted to take the reigns in the first game.
Even without passing leagues and a summer of team activities, he has impressed teammates and coaches.
In a mid-September practice, he appeared to have a solid understanding of the offensive playbook and made several accurate, tight passes. Besides just his arm, Hogg is impressed with his speed and quickness.
The Cougars did not have a single runner accumulate more than 300 yards on the ground last year, but a new quarterback that forces opponents to respect the pass more could open lanes for sneaks and designed rushes.
“He’s much more mobile than the quarterbacks we’ve had the last two years, which gives you eleven players in the run game instead of just ten,” Hogg said.
Kirkwood, Palacio and senior linebacker Pedro Soto are the leading returning tacklers on defense and will also factor in at the skill positions.
Also assisting Kellis' projections is its fresh schedule. What was once a killer’s row of a region - Centennial, Ironwood, Sunnyslope and Sunrise Mountain were playoff teams last year and likely will contend for high seedings again this season - is now projected to be a bit easier.
None of the teams in the newly-formed 5A West II region were in last year’s postseason. two of the teams - West Point and Canyon View - sport first-year varsity squads.
Agua Fria was the only West II team to post a winning record. Willow Canyon is in the new region, as is Independence - the lone team Kellis defeated last year.
A new slate of region games could potentially result in more competitive games, and therefore more chances to win. But the thought ends there for Kellis players.
Senior wide receiver/defensive back Andrew Palacio makes a catch at Raymond S. Kellis football practice. [Eric Newman/For West Valley Preps]
“It’s exciting, but any opponent is just another team.” said senior Andrew Palacio, who led the Cougars in both tackles and rushing yards as a junior in 2019. “We’re going to do our best no matter what, even if we don’t know them as well.”
For Hogg, it is difficult to even think that far ahead. Mere weeks earlier, there were questions of whether a football season would take place at all.
Just getting to the Oct. 2 start at Estrella Foothills is a victory after the events of the past months. Thoughts of region games toward the end of the season can wait.
“I’m not really thinking about those games down the road. Since March, it’s been basically just, ‘what’s happening tomorrow?’ because that’s really all we can count on,” Hogg said.
Every team in the new region is 0-0 and can claim a legitimate chance at the West II region title, even the oft-overlooked Cougars.
Kellis nabbed the Metro Region crown in 2016, which also is the program's only playoff appearance since 2010.
“It’d be nice to know we contributed different than the year before and make a difference for this program to keep going in the right direction even after we leave,” Palacio said.