WINNEMUCCA — There is a saying that things happen in threes. Unfortunately for the Lowry High School football team, it has experienced three consecutive losses to Moapa Valley in the Division I-A state semifinals in the small farming town of Overton.
The Buckaroos have enjoyed their most successful three-year run as program, dating back to the early 1990s when they played in the state championship in 1990 and 1992. Lowry won a school-record 10 games a season ago, before falling to the Pirates.
With a veteran group of players back, Lowry is looking to extend its year by one more week in search of its first state championship in school history. Humboldt County High School won titles in 1959 and 1964.
“We have a pretty strong senior group back and a nice bunch of juniors,” said LHS head coach Tim Billingsley. “We are excited about the year. Everyone has us pegged as the favorite before we play a game. We are not going to look past anybody. We are optimistic that we can win some games. The guys want to get back on the field after losing to Moapa last year. We just let things get away from us at the end.”
The Buckaroos put up more than 4,500 yards in total offense last year, including 3,350 on the ground. The Buckaroos rushed for more than 300 yards in six different games, including a 519-yard effort against Battle Mountain on Thursday.
After struggling to find a passing game in the past, Lowry was able to open its offense up, throwing for more than 1,000 yards. With minimal losses in the key offensive positions, the Buckaroos should not miss a beat.
The offense begins with dual-threat quarterback Calvin Connors. The senior stepped into the role last year, causing fits for opposing defenses. Connors was named to the Division I-A first team and was a second team choice on the all-state squad. As a junior, Connors ran for 697 yards and 14 touchdowns, while throwing for 1,020 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“He really grew into the spot last year,” Billingsley said. “He is going to be tough for teams to scheme against. He has the ability to run the ball and throw, and teams have to be ready to defend that.”
Connors will also see plenty of time on defense, where he was second team Division I-A selection at safety.
The Buckaroos have three quarterbacks on the roster, including Garrett Naveran and Christian Gray. Naveran battled through injuries last year but is healthy now. Look to see Naveran play defensive end and Gray at defensive back.
The rest of the skilled spots are just as impressive for the Buckaroos. Senior Brandon Okuma, who was a first-team Division I-A North and all-state choice at running back, returns. During his junior season, Okuma ran for 949 yards on just 112 carries, while scoring 10 touchdowns. Okuma also caught 21 passes for 318 yards and three touchdowns.
Junior Beau Billingsley will join Okuma in the backfield, looking to improve on last season. Billingsley ran for 502 yards on 64 carries to go with six touchdowns. In addition, he had seven receptions for 96 yards.
Senior Elijah Frei and junior Donovan Brumm combined for nearly 300 yards and Thomas Schwartz is up from the junior varsity team.
“We are looking forward to a good year,” said the coach. “We have some pretty good skill guys. It’s always nice to have an all-state running back that returns. We have a lot of depth to the program. Between all three teams we had almost 100 kids out.”
Leading the receiving core will be Robert Stepper, who was second team Division I-A North selection at tight end. Stepper is the second leading receiver back, just behind Okuma. Stepper had 14 receptions in 2012 for 245 yards and four touchdowns.
Josh Shaver, Tytus Millikan, Nate Eldodt and Alec Mayo will add depth at the position. Colin Doyle, who is up from the JV team, could see play time at the receiver spot as well.
“We are always looking to be two dimensional with our offense,” Billingsley said. “In the past, teams would put eight and nine guys in the box to stop our run game. But with the players we have now, we have the ability to even out what we do on offense.”
The Buckaroos will have to fill a couple of spots on the offensive and defensive lines. The injury bug has also hit Lowry along the lines in the preseason.
Kerry Buckmaster, Luis Cardenas and Tytin Johnson are back to anchor the offensive and defensive lines. Buckmaster was a second team Division I-A choice last year, but is battling through a knee injury at the moment. Cardenas and Johnson were honorable mention choices in 2012.
Ivan Castellanos and Kirk Berentsen return as well, and Matt Ourada is back with the squad after missing last year.
“We are a little banged up on the line right now,” added the coach. “If we can get healthy and get them back into shape we will be OK. We had three starting lineman that didn’t play in the scrimmage.”
Defensively, Lowry turned in another solid performance, allowing 15.75 points a game. After allowing 38 points in the season opener, the Buckaroos gave up 108 in their next 10.
“We return a lot of guys off a pretty good defense,” said the coach. “It’s nice to have a bunch of returning kids and fortunate to have a lot of them back with experience.”
Lowry opened its season on Thursday night with a 56-7 non conference win over Battle Mountain. The Buckaroos jump into Division I-A North play in a big way, as they host Truckee on Friday. The Wolverines have won the past four state championships and have won 47 of their last 48 games. However, Truckee lost all 11 of its starters on defense and has a new coach.
“Everybody knows what we have back,” Billingsley said. “Truckee lost some kids and has a new coach but they are still the state champions. We have had our chances against them in the past couple of years, but let some wins slip away.”
The run to the top of the Division I-A North will be a tough one for the Buckaroos with road trips to Elko, Fernley and Churchill County. Lowry also travels to Dayton and Wooster, while hosting South Tahoe, Sparks and Spring Creek.
The top four teams in the league advance to the regional playoffs, where the No. 1 seed will host the No. 4 seed, while the No. 3 seed travels to face the No. 2 seed.
Moapa Valley and Cheyenne should provide the toughest challenges in the Division I-A South. Both schools won their respective leagues a year ago. Boulder City and Mojave were the other two schools to reach the state playoffs from the south.
“Everyone is going to be geared up to play us,” Billingsley said. “We have a big target on our back but we will be geared up to play everyone. We just need to come out and play with some intensity and desire. Our final goal is to get in the state championship. We want to win every week and let the cards lay where they may.”