Fernley High School football coach Dave Hart would rather just forget about last season. After finishing 0-5 in division play and 3-6 overall, the Vaqueros missed the 3A playoffs for only the second time in the 90s.
But with 19 returning starters who played on both offense and defense, Hart believes this year's team could make a serious run at its division title.
"That's always our goal, to win the league," said Hart, who also welcomes back 18 seniors. "We're capable of doing that, but we're also capable of finishing at the bottom."
The Vaqueros will get an early start, their first game is tonight against Pershing County at 7 p.m. in Lovelock.
"They're very well coached and they'll always come out to hit you," Hart said of the Pershing County Mustangs, a 3A playoff qualifier in 1999 and now a 2A team. "But we'll be ready."
Hart is hesitant to set too high of expectations for his team because after starting 3-1 last season, he understands how quickly things can change.
"I might be too optimistic right now," Hart said.
Another cause for lingering skepticism is the realigned 3A, which has been reduced from three divisions to two. Yerington, Dayton, and Bishop Manogue move into Division I, joining Tahoe-Truckee, North Tahoe and Spring Creek. Lowry, which competed in 4A last season, has dropped down and rounds out what shapes up to be an extremely tough division.
Standing in the way of Fernley's championship aspirations are Bishop Manogue, the defending 3A state champs, perennial power Tahoe-Truckee, who beat the Vaqueros 53-7 in 1999, as well as Lowry.
Last season, inexperience cost the Vaqueros several games, according to Hart. In their last game, a 20-19 loss to Rite of Passage, Hart started six sophomores. But with those 18 seniors on the current roster, experience becomes the team's best weapon.
"And every single one of them (underclassmen) has been in the weight room and put on 10 or 15 pounds," Hart said.
Even more important, junior quarterback Matt Lambeth gained 35 pounds and upped his weight to 195 pounds from last year's playing weight of 160.
"It's just what you have to do to get to the next level," Lambeth said of his intense summer weight training program.
"He's a stud," Hart said of Lambeth, who also stars on Fernley's basketball and baseball teams. "He's opened a lot of eyes. There's already some schools with some serious interest in him."
Lambeth, who was named the Appeal's Carson Country 3A football player of the year as a sophomore, said he's looking forward to a big year for the team.
"Everyone's giving us the best chance to win. But we just gotta do it," Lambeth said.
Along with Lambeth, running back Joey Fennessey, who is the 3A state 400-meter track champion, gives the Vaqueros a balanced offense that should keep opposing defenses on their heels.
"He just had a great year for us last season," Hart said of Fennessey.
"We plan on doing a lot more one-back sets with our running back, which is something different for us," Hart said.
And since the entire starting line returns, that cohesion should give Lambeth more time in the pocket and create bigger holes for Fennessey.
Names of offensive linemen?
Defensively, they will have to find a replacement for linebacker Aaron Keller, who as a senior led the team with 34 tackles. But Hart remains confident that his senior-dominated defense will get the job done.