Lamar Early knew his 2020 Millennium football team was up against it.
And that was before the coach was exposed to COVID-19 through family members and the pandemic wiped out much of the young Tigers’ summer preparations. The team had a couple periods of stop and start workouts but were largely silent through the months of July and August.
So a team with an entirely new offensive backfield, one returning receiver and an all new linebacking corps and secondary did not start preparations for the new season in earnest until Aug. 31.
“You talk about adversity, we’ve gone through it. We’re not the only program — it’s nationwide. For the most part our kids and coaches have handled it,” Early said. “I had to make the tough decision as a head coach. I wanted to make sure there was a clear plan as far as when we came back because we didn’t want to come back and something happened. The No. 1 thing is the safety of our kids. I love the game of football, but I don’t love it enough to have a kid go through this sickness.”
Plus their revised schedule is more befitting the 2019 Tigers, which boasted 35 seniors and reached the 5A quarterfinals for the second straight year.
All three non-region foes made the playoffs, including open division participant Phoenix Horizon. Three region rivals were in the 5A bracket and rival Desert Edge moved in after finishing as the 4A runner up.
Four West Region opponents — Desert Edge, Ironwood, Sunrise Mountain and Verrado — bring back large numbers of starting upperclassmen. In a sporadic offseason with limited football drills, these foes will go in with a considerable advantage in continuity.
Early just hopes for any type of season after a directionless summer.
“If we can play five games it’s a victory. If we can play, period, after losing the whole spring season and most of the summer season,” Early said. “A lot of the ownership goes on the AIA. If they had made a decision earlier, a lot of teams would be maybe not on the same level but feel a lot more comfortable putting a product on the field. They waited until yesterday and we start on the [Sept. 7].
When they put target dates out there and weren’t sure about it, that led to the frustration.”
This team will test the old adage about games being won in the trenches. At least early on, the Tigers will have to use their big men to pave a path for success for the young but untested skill group and back seven.
It starts with Mikaele Fuamatu, who will see the majority of snaps on both sides of the line, moving between tackle and guard on offense and defensive tackle.
Defensively, Fuamatu has experienced help with a pair of returning starters, senior defensive end Spencer Reid and senior defensive tackle Michael Stephens.
The offensive line is mostly new, though fellow senior center Cade Marszalek was a starter before injury woes, and sophomore guard Malosi Fuamatu has the bloodlines.
Senior guard Albert Figueroa also is expected to return.
The older Fuamatu brother also can take the kiddie corps back to his freshman year, also Early’s first. The Tigers were a 4-6 team in 6A and did not get much positive publicity.
“It’s kind of a nice reminder. When I first started varsity, everybody was down on us. It’s going to be that way this season too. It’s a nice way to go into a season, to prove everybody wrong,” Mikaele Fuamatu said.
He said Marszalek has a home gym and in recent months Millennium’s linemen put that to work.
Millennium junior defensive back Jaylen Hawkins returns a Casteel fumble for a touchdown during a 5A playoff quarterfinal Nov. 15 at Casteel High School in Queen Creek. [Arianna Grainey/For West Valley Preps]
Fellow senior Jaylen Hawkins will take a larger role this year, probably starting at tailback and free safety. He said the skill players got together to catch balls and have quarterbacks throw to them during the down time.
“It brings out a bigger separation with who really wants to play. The players that put in the extra work, it brings us closer,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins should provide stability at one offensive spot. Early said the receiving corps is the one area with some certainty other than both lines.
Senior starter Elijah Lewis is back, and fellow senior Talmadge Tanks got valuable experience last year. Early said junior tight end/defensive end Sean Farney improved in the offseason.
“We’re installing our offense and things like that right now. At the same time, we’re trying to challenge them and put them in different situations,” Early said.
With so little time to evaluate, the director of that offense is very much up in the air. Senior Noah Kharoufeh and junior Ethan Bryant are back after tiny bits of action last year. Early said he has been impressed by sophomore Willow Canyon transfer Kadyn Bybee.
Many other openings could be filled by sophomores who went 8-1 as freshmen in 2019.
Millennium head coach Lamar Early calls out to an official questioning a non-call during the first half of their 5A football game against Higley on Sept. 20, 2019. [Ralph Freso/For West Valley Preps]
"We’ve got a talented sophomore group that everybody saw last year. And we’ve got some talented freshmen this year also,” Early said.
Many older players will see more time on both sides of the ball than in previous years. Hawkins and Fuamatu said they prepared as if they would play the majority of the snaps this year.
Tailback/linebacker Fren Daniels is another senior that may be needed on offense and defense.
The increasing likelihood of a season will be big for the largely anonymous class of 2021.
“It’s huge for us because 99% of us are sitting on no scholarship offers. The only one that has them is Mika, and getting senior film is going to be big for him. It’s going to be a big year for all for us,” Hawkins said.
Early said it was a summer of rigorous weight room workouts, but struggles because it was harder for coaches to get time with the kids.
The seniors faced a summer of uncertainty and are relishing that chance.
“This summer has definitely been a struggle since we haven’t been able to fall into our summer routines. It’s nice to be out here. I’m motivated and I hope we’re going to ball out this year,” Fuamatu said.
The seniors have one major goal — to not be the class that stops the program’s growth.
Before the last two 9-3 playoff seasons, Millennium had not made the playoffs since 2013.
“They want to carry it on. We’re missing some of our seniors because right now with the COVID, parents don’t feel safe bringing them out. This was supposed to be another big senior class. We’re talking about 25 to 30 seniors with some transfers and that stuff. That’s yet to be seen,” Early said. “We lost a class last year that really started the momentum of the program. We’ve got to keep it going. That’s the goal.”