The Elko football program is out to prove last year was an anomaly, a hiccup, an aberration.
The Indians stormed out of the gate with a 62-0 rout of Sparks in their season opener and then tumbled back to Earth with five straight losses. They managed to regroup to win their final three games, including a win against Spring Creek, but they were out of the playoff picture.
They do not plan to be in that same spot this year, but fourth-year head coach Luke Sellers will not allow the team to think that far ahead.
“It’s one day at a time,” he said. “We’ve got a good group of kids that want to learn, but we’ll be young and inexperienced.”
The Tribe looks to reload its varsity program around a talented class of juniors that have excelled at the previous levels of high school football.
The team got a look at one of those players midway through the 2012 season when Jason Wilson was brought up to varsity.
After the fourth straight loss last year and the offense unable to score (Elko had just 13 points in those setbacks), Wilson played against South Tahoe because the Vikings did not have a JV team. The sophomore scored three times, two rushing and one on a kick return. He continued with eight more touchdowns in the final three wins.
Wilson finished his brief four-game stint on varsity with 505 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. He also had 13 catches for 189 yards and two scores, and he returned two kickoffs back.
He is joined in the backfield by senior David Jackson, who had 386 rushing yards and four scores last season.
“David and Jason are our most experienced backs and are a nice 1-2 punch,” Sellers said. “They compliment each other well in our scheme.”
Juniors Cody Nielsen and Jordan Walthers will provide depth.
At quarterback, Connor Altenburg and Jacob Conklin have battled it out in the preseason. Altenburg, a senior, saw some varsity action last year. He finished 16 of 39 passing for 167 yards.
Conklin led the freshman and JV teams the past two seasons.
“Connor has shown he’s got good control of the huddle and understands what we’re doing,” Sellers said. “Jacob is getting that. It’s not just going back there and chucking it. You have to stand in the right spots, read the right guy, make the right steps. We’ll refine the skills and get them to do the right things every time.”
The Indians will have four seniors — Garrison Bement, A.J. Jordan, Gage Castagnetti and James Carter — in the mix at wide receiver. Between them, they had three catches last year for 41 yards.
Sellers said Bement is a good route runner, while Jordan might spend some time at tight end as well.
The starter at tight end appears to be Nathan Klekas, who also starred at JV last year. The basketball standout will be a matchup nightmare on the football field as well.
Castagnetti and Juan Meza could also see time at tight end. Benton Wickersham, a sophomore, could also get a plays in at tight end but is more than likely going to find a job on defense.
“If we bring a sophomore up to varsity, he’s going to play,” Sellers said. “We are not bringing him up to stand on the sidelines.”
The offensive line is where the is most experienced. The unit has four returning starters, and Sellers likes the depth he has at the position.
Damian Nusser is back at center, Nicholas Taylor and Alonso Gonzalez return at the guards, and Angel Lievanos takes back over at tackle.
The incoming junior class has some solid linemen as well.
“That younger group was successful at JV because they had blockers,” Sellers said. “Some of our newcomers can be in the mix and will push the experienced kids to be better.
“With the addition of our younger kids, we should be pretty athletic,” Sellers added about the offense. “Our schemes can expand a little bit. As guys understand what is going on, we can go deeper in the playbook.”
On the flip side of the ball, the defensive line had a lot of candidates looking for a job.
Anthony Goicoechea, Castagnetti, Lalo Flores, Jose Gomez, Adam Bullock, L.A. Jones, Hunter Smith, Kenyon Terry and Jared Pollock are some of the players that could move through the defensive front.
“On defense, we’re constantly hiring and firing guys,” Sellers said. “It’ll be a revolving door. It’ll also be an advantage to be able to run fresh legs in there.”
The team graduated its top three tacklers from last year.
At linebacker, Walthers, Nielsen, Devin Kelly, Taylor and Wickersham could all be in the mix.
If Wickersham does not play linebacker, he is a candidate for strong safety. Eddie Barajas played at corner last year, and Cole Johnny got playing time last year in the secondary as well. Eric Van Kirk and Seth Morphin will also factor into the those spots.
The special teams positions are pretty open, but it is likely Wilson will do some work on kick returns. Carter, Jackson and Van Kirk could all handle the job.
As for who kicks for the Indians, that is an open competition.
Klekas, Wickersham, Nielsen, Wilson and Gomez are some of the names Sellers threw out as possible kickers depending on the situation.
“We could use three different guys — one doing kickoffs, one doing PATs and one doing field goals,” he said.
Wickersham is a front-runner for the job as punter, while Klekas and Castagnetti are also potential punters.
The Indians look to make a move up the Northern I-A standings this season, but it will not be an easy feat.
“Every game is going to be a dog fight,” Sellers said. “Truckee will be good and are the king of the hill until someone knocks them off. Fallon and Fernley are both capable of doing that. Lowry will be really good.”
With only four playoff spots available, the Indians must find a way to take out at least one of those teams and still fend off threats from South Tahoe, Spring Creek, Wooster and Dayton. Sellers said the parity in the league is really good this season.
“That’s why we have to take it one day at a time,” he said. “We have to be ready to play every week.”