With a new head coach and revamped starting lineup, Galena appears to be starting this season as a question mark. Never mind appearances because coach Steve Struzyk is striving to continue a tradition that taken the Grizzlies to the Northern 4A playoffs each of the last three years.
"I don't want to make predictions as far as how many games we're going to win," Struzyk said. "Kind of what we're basing this fall on, we don't want this to be a year-to-year thing. We're here to build a program that will last."
Even though Greg Sakelaris stepped down as head coach back in the spring after five seasons as head coach, Struzyk was part of the coaching staff all five years. The Grizzlies qualified for the playoffs for the first time in school history in 2000, followed by 7-4 showings the last two years. Last year, the Grizzlies finished third in the Sierra League then posted a 7-6 victory against Douglas in the first round of the playoffs in a driving rainstorm in Minden. Their season ended in the Northern 4A semifinals with a 41-7 loss to eventual state champion McQueen.
"I think the coaching move has been real smooth; Greg made it easy to slide in," said Struzyk, who was the team's offensive coordinator last year. "Nine coaches on the staff return, so not a lot has changed."
However, 22 seniors departed on graduation day, including a nucleus that led the team the last two years. Among the key losses to graduation are Matt Fry, a first-team all-region linebacker each of the last two years and the team MVP in 2002; Barrett Young, a first-team all-league linebacker who has signed to run track at Montana State; all-region defensive lineman Jake Norris; and two-year starting quarterback Pat Flynn.
"We're going to miss that senior class," Struzyk said. "We brought a lot of those kids up for the playoffs when we played South Tahoe in 2000, so they were a big part of this program for three years. Now, we're hoping a lot of that experience they left will help us out."
The Grizzlies will be tested early because they open the season with three non-conference games against opponents that qualified for the playoffs last year. Galena opens Sept. 5 at home against defending Sierra League champion Reno, travels to Carson for a Thursday night game on Sept. 11 and then hosts Douglas on Sept. 19.
"I see our season as being a battle every week," Struzyk said. "We open with Reno, Carson, Douglas and then we go into league; I think we have the toughest schedule in the North."
One tradition over the past two years has been a tenacious defense -- known as the "Yellow Brick Wall" -- that stood as a key to Galena's success. Defensive coordinator Tony Edwards returns.
"That's kind of been our philosophy here the last couple of years. Our goal isn't to score 40 points, our goals is to hold other teams to fewer than 20," Struzyk said. "Defensively, we've never been real big here. Our goal is to play as a team, hustle, swarm to the ball and just attack."
Among the returnees on defense are linebacker Kyle Bateson and defensive back Frank Kurnik. Linebacker Dennis Bolz and defensive back Daniel Vu, both seniors, are also expected to contribute.
On offense, the Grizzlies feature a couple of threats to run the ball: Senior Hunter Mulhall and junior Ben Fry. Mike Murry saw action at fullback before he broke an ankle against Fallon.
Mulhall rushed for 300 yards last year and showed some speed during the spring track season when he emerged as a state qualifier in both the high and intermediate hurdles. Fry was promoted from the J.V. level at midseason as a sophomore last year and contributed to the Grizzlies' running game as a running back.
Fry was especially impressive in the playoffs when he rushed for 93 yards on 12 carries, including a 55-yard touchdown run in the third quarter in Galena's win over Douglas. He also caught a 68-yard touchdown pass that tied the score at 7-7 in Galena's playoff loss against McQueen.
"He's the type of kid we can move around, whether he's at tailback or in the slot," Struzyk said of the 5-foot-9, 160-pound Fry. "He does have wheels, he's pretty quick, but he does not have great size. He is not a guy who will carry the ball 30 times a game, but we will use him running the ball and catching the ball."
Two seniors are battling for the staring quarterback job: Colby Smith and Rob Keever.
Seniors Sean Taft, senior Zach Harger, Bateson and Bolz, along with junior Shane Hillyard are expected to be leaders on the offensive line.
"That's where all of our questions are," Struzyk said. "We have some juniors who need to step up on the O line."