For once, the numbers appear to be in Willow Canyon football’s favor.
While the state watched numbers of COVID-19 cases increase throughout the summer, the Wildcats watched their increased number of legitimate varsity players weather the storm of a pandemic-altered offseason.
After dressing 28 players for its final game of 2019, Willow Canyon can deploy almost double that amount when the season kicks off (hopefully) in October.
“We have a good nucleus of kids. And we had some good kids in the past, but it’s been a building process and a learning process. I didn’t think we’d get to this point that we are now until next year. We’re able to do some things now with the numbers we have that we haven’t for two years,” Willow Canyon coach Justin Stangler said.
The program has grown without the benefit of a large senior class. Only 14 seniors will suit up for the Wildcats,
Stangler said in talking the seniors, the group admitted they took a lot of things for granted. Now they realize football and other high school milestones can be pulled away.
“They know the numbers we have, and that they’re not going to have to play offense, defense and special teams and never come off the field,” Stangler said.
More of the class of 2021 will concentrate on defense. During the offseason, they concentrated on filling in the gaps as offseason workouts started, then were shut down.
“We’re one of the smallest senior classes in size. But I feel we all work as one. We have a couple linemen but mostly skill guys. We had everybody split up so we could lead each group,” said senior safety Garrett Wojick.
Stangler said during team offsesaon workouts, Willow Canyon did not go much in weight room. The team focused on body strength and conditioning with linemen and core exercise drills.
Team leaders went above and beyond, organizing informal workouts before the first hour football class at school.
“They were getting up at 5 a.m. and working out on their own. I never asked for that to happen,” Stangler said.
Wojick and senior corner Hugo Soto return in the secondary with senior corner Dion Hafner likely to join them after picking off two passes last year.
Willow Canyon junior linebacker Marquis Kelly (#21) tracks Dysart junior tailback Bobby Gardea while sophomore defensive tackle Josiah Gardner during an Aug. 30, 2019 game at Willow Canyon. [Courtesy Dysart Unified School District]
“We got our spring and summer taken away. Almost got our fall taken away. Now we heard the news we’ll finally be able to play and I think everybody’s energetic and pumped up. Whether it’s eight games or three games, we’re just excited to play football,” Hafner said.
Defensive line looks like the strength of this team with senior defensive tackle Dylan Belnavis and defensive end Bryson Plueger. Junior defensive tackle Josiah Gardener appears to be morphing from Willow Canyon’s most talented player to its best player.
Stangler said the 6-foot-1 Gardener slimmed from above 300 pounds to 278.
“He’s so much faster and stronger. He’s dialed in,” Stangler said. “We’ve had a couple schools already inquire about him.”
The same transformation is everywhere on the offensive line. Last year’s young line has worked into true varsity bigs that know how to use their bulk.
Junior tackle Santino Servant leads the way at 6-4, 320 pounds. Junior guard Joseph Hill checks in at 270 pounds and has been on the varsity since his freshman year. Fellow junior guard Travis Lewis started last year, and Bradley Pace started a couple times after injuries late in 2019.
The spread offense also has a bumper crop of wide receiver options. Junior Daunte Williams led the team with 34 catches for 366 yards as a sophomore and twin brother Donovan joins him.
Senior Marquis Kelly will be another main target after focusing on defense last year. Halfway through the season, Valley Vista transfer Daniel Redmond will add a 6-3, 210 pound target to the mix.
Junior Xereque Parham steps in at quarterback and will give Willow Canyon its first dual-threat option at the position in five years. He got a few snaps late last year after following his father and Wildcats defensive backs coach, Grant, over from Kellis.
The late start to practice will mean position battles continue until the season start. The most open roles on the roster are at running back and linebacker, though both Hafner and Wojick said they were impressed with sophomore backs Vance Cooper and Brady Ferris.
Stangler said seven or eight sophomores are challenging to start or play after going 8-1 as a freshman team in 2019.
Stangler will take this deeper roster into a 5A West II Region that appears wide open. Former region heavyweights Millennium and Verrado moved into the 5A West I.
Willow Canyon is joined by Avondale West Point and Waddell Canyon View, both in their first season of AIA varsity competition. Kellis is there as well, happy to be free of a region with Centennial, Sunnyslope and Sunrise Mountain.
Independence also is in the region, as is Avondale Agua Fria, another team full of returning players and looking at 2020 as a year of opportunity.
“I think we’re going to be competitive because we’re all new and building or trying to rebuild. I know George Martinez has done a great job rebuilding at Agua Fria and he said he’s going to have a very good team,” Stangler said.
Willow Canyon junior defensive back Hugo Soto (#24) stands above Dysart senior Michael Lucero as he tries to get a handle on the ball during an Aug. 30, 2019 game at Willow Canyon. Soto is one of the Wildcats' returning defensive seniors. [Courtesy Dysart Unified School District]
The rest of the original 10-game schedule moved around and teams moved off and on.
Willow Canyon’s new schedule adds games with Copper Canyon and Maricopa. And, most notably, loses the annual “Battle of Surprise” rivalry game with Valley Vista. The first two schools in the city have played every year since Valley Vista started varsity play in 2007.
“It’s a game we have to play and it’s a rivalry, which is great. This year I know they are upset and I know with the redo we thought we’d get the game. They gave us Maricopa and Copper Canyon,” Stangler said. “I do know it wouldn’t have the same feel since you can’t to have the student body there. I was talking with some of the Cactus and Peoria coaches and they kind of felt the same way. What makes those games special is the stadium’s full. I think it would lose some luster because nobody would be here.”
At this point the entire program is just happy to have some type of season to look forward to.
“I always had faith. There were ups and downs. We always kept in touch with coach. Even when we were in quarantine we were still going over plays, rules and what we were going to do for next season,” Wojick said.
For a program that has not posted a winning record or made the playoffs since 2011, this season is full of optimism that one or both can be achieved.
The Wildcats also bring in a sense of determination to change opinions on the football team, starting with some on their own campus.
“It would definitely mean a lot to me. Even our students and classmates doubt us. Coming through the adversity of COVID and succeeding through this, it would just prove people wrong,” Hafner said.