It is said defense wins championships. If so, then the Carson Senators have a good start toward its 2003 season.
Buoyed by a defensive unit that features eight returnees who have extensive playing experience and further fueled by an abundance of team speed, the Senators come into the start of their new season filled with high expectations.
"We're going to be as good on defense as any team I've ever had, just because of our team speed and because this is a very physical group of kids," said Shane Quilling, who is entering his third season as head coach at Carson. "They're going to cause people some problems with their speed and just getting after people."
The Senators kick off their season Friday night with a non-conference game against the McQueen Lancers in Reno. Make that defending 4A state champion McQueen, a team that handed Carson a season-ending 49-0 playoff defeat last November. It marked the third straight year the Senators have lost in the opening round of the playoffs at McQueen -- the Lancers won state titles in 2000 and 2002 -- but Quilling has no qualms about starting the new season with a rematch.
"I really don't have a problem with playing them," Quilling said. "That's kind of the way I want to judge how we're doing. There hasn't hasn't been a better program in the state of Nevada over the last 12 years. It would be nice to play them at home once in a while, but we're not in charge of the schedule.
Carson features a defensive unit anchored by the inside linebacker tandem of John Stewart (6-3, 200) and Nick Shine (6-3, 215), both seniors. Stewart led the Senators in tackles and was recognized as a second-team all-league linebacker last season. Shine, a third-year starter, was a first-team all-league tight end last year.
They will be flanked on the outside by Danny Rotter and Jared Wulff, giving the Senators four returning starters at linebacker. Junior Derek Shoaf has moved up from the JV to provide added depth.
"We have a lot of returnees, so yes, we are excited. It should be fun," said Shine, who placed second as a 189-pounder at the 4A state wrestling tournament in February.
"It starts with defense," Stewart said.
Then he added reference to the NFL's reigning Super Bowl champion.
"Buccaneers!" Stewart said, flashing a smile.
Mike Handley returns to lead the secondary from his free safety position. Junior Zack Tersteege, Tilor Smith, Tsuyoshi Curtis, Ryan Sarkissian and Aaron Holmes are part of a talented group of defensive backs.
Rob Ghiglieri returns to play weakside end while junior Mike Horrigan is expected to start at the strongside end, backed up by Anthony Bass. Brian Welch and David Cadwallader saw extensive action on the line as sophomores last year. Cadwallader has been penciled in to start at nose guard.
One setback for the Senators came when their biggest player, senior Mike Moore (6-3, 290), decided not to play football this year.
On offense, the Senators must replace some quality seniors who graduated, including first-team all-league and all-region running back Chris Kotter, quarterback Frank Bleuss, all-league offensive lineman Allen Wooldridge and defensive standout Jack Brooks. Kotter rushed for 1,317 yards and 17 TDs last year. Bleuss rushed for 616 yards and passed for another 400 yards and engineered Carson's Veer offense most of last season.
Four players return with starting experience, including 6-foot-3, 180-pound senior quarterback Mike Dittenber, who started two midseason games in 2002 after Bleuss went down with a concussion. Dittenber came off the bench to complete 10 of 28 passes with three interceptions and 165 yards against Hug. He was also 5-for-8 for 175 yards and two touchdowns against South Tahoe.
"He logged almost 200 plays for us at quarterback last year and he has only improved," Quilling said of Dittenber, a state track meet qualifier in the high jump this past May. "He's obviously going to be a leader for our offense, running the option and throwing. He's just a good athlete and great leader."
Dittenber will have some talented receivers to work with. Start with Handley, the team's leading receiver last year.
"He's going to be a game-breaker, an exceptional athlete who's not going to step off the field very much," Quilling said of Handley, who also figures to be involved as a punter and return man.
Wes Kaylor, a 6-foot-2 senior, is another returning receiver and is joined by juniors Matt Moore and Smith. Moore, Smith and Stewart were all members of Carson's regional championship 4x400 relay team in track.
Another speedster in the picture is Curtis, who played football as a freshman at Carson and has returned after two years at Cimarron-Memorial High in Las Vegas.
He was a starting receiver last season and a 2:03 800-meter runner on the track.
The Senators also expect to show an extensive amount of double tight end looks with Shine, Stewart and Welch expected to share playing time.
The Veer is still a ground oriented offense and the running back duties are expected to be spread out among a group that includes Austin Watson, Wulff, Sarkissian, Holmes and Rotter.
"We have five quality backs," Quilling said. "We will probably rotate all five of them. They're all very quick, which is what we need because some of those guys play defense, too."
Mark Robinson is a returning starter at tackle and joins guard Cameron Leck and center Ghiglieri to lead the offensive line. All three are seniors.
Jeremy Steele saw a considerable amount of playing time last year at tackle and sophomore Eric Walther is set to step in at guard. Don McMurtrey, Stephen Waicul, Alex Lopez and Horrigan provide backup depth.
"We have the best depth on the offensive and defensive lines since I've been here," Quilling said.
Sophomore Matt Mitchell is tentatively set to handle the team's kicking duties.
Expectations and potential are one thing. Winning games is another.
"We have high expectations," Stewart said. "But potential doesn't do anything. We've got to get out there and execute."