To say that times have been tough for the Sparks High football program would be the understatement of the year, or maybe the past two years. That’s the same number of years in which the SHS gridiron club has failed to win even a single game.
To make matters worse, in addition to the past two winless seasons, Sparks managed just one win the year before, in 2011. Sparks has not won more than one game in a fall campaign since the 2010 team finished 4-6 overall.
With no success to build on, it would be easy to wonder how the Railroaders’ preseason camp has come along in recent weeks.
“It’s been good,” said Sparks coach Rob Kittrell, who is entering his 17th season at the helm of SHS football. “The kids have worked hard from No. 1 to No. 29. They all do what we ask and they do it hard. It’s been a good surprise to have 29 kids bought in … This group is truly our first in a while where they all seem to love football.”
He may like the mental makeup of his group in the early going, but what has he seen on the field from his newest gridiron gang?
“You see us doing a lot of things well,” Kittrell said. “For example, when we scrimmaged ROP last weekend, with the exception of just a couple plays, we had all 11 helmets in the camera. We have that effort piece. That can help clear up a lot of missed tackles if you’ve got 11 guys pursuing to the football and going 100 percent. Eventually one of them will get the ball carrier.”
That has not been the case in years past. The SHS defense has been atrocious in recent seasons. Sparks gave up 40 or more points in eight of its nine outings last year, and the one time it didn’t, the local school was still saddled with a 33-7 shellacking by South Tahoe.
Kittrell said his defensive unit’s execution has been a focus throughout the team’s offseason workouts and continues to be in preseason camp. He’s hoping it will turn into a team strength, and at the same time, it’s still an area of concern.
“We’ve really focused on stopping the run game,” Kittrell said. “Pursuit, taking the right angles, being in the right spot to do your job and trusting your teammates, those have all been areas of emphasis. We want to stop teams from running the ball against us.
“And tackling is still a concern. Tackling is an every year thing, wanting to be low and in the right spot, making good shoulder tackles, that’s all important stuff. We saw a lot of good stuff in the scrimmage, but we also saw some shoddy tackling too.”
Sparks will not field a JV team, just freshmen and varsity clubs. That leaves the Railroaders with 29 varsity players and only six are back from last year’s team. Kittrell pointed to Gerardo Valencia and Sylis Sanchez. The veteran coach said Valencia is entering his third season on the SHS roster and that the senior has taken over the role of vocal team leader. Sanchez is a junior and is set to start at quarterback for the revamped Sparks offense. Kittrell pointed to the quick growth Sanchez has shown in picking up the offense and taking ownership of the unit as reasons he’s expected to mature into a team leader.
Kittrell stressed there are no secrets abut the team’s expectations for the year.
“We just want to get that first ‘W’ as soon as we can,” the Railroaders’ coach said. “As soon as these guys see they can win at the varsity level, it will be a huge confidence boost for them. We are young, and you have to take that into account, but I think the confidence will definitely grow with a victory … What we’ve seen in practice is these guys are starting to put the pieces together. A victory would help push them over the edge.”
One challenge Sparks coaches have continually seen in recent years is their athletes come into the high school ranks with less playing experience than their D-IA counterparts across Northern Nevada. Additionally, Sparks has struggled to match up athletically. Kittrell thinks that gap is closing.
“I think so. These kids as a whole bring a little more football experience than our kids in the past. Many of these kids have played some SYFL,” Kittrell said. “I think that they’re a little more in tune with what’s expected of them on the football field. They’re not as hesitant. Their football IQ is higher. It’s easier for them to understand and trust what’s going on out there.”
Sparks got in its preseason scrimmage last weekend against Rite of Passage. There won’t be much room for error on the SHS schedule. Next, the Railroaders get the Labor Day weekend off before kicking off the 2014 season at home Sept. 5 against DI-A North foe Dayton. Eight more conference clashes follow as Sparks does not have a non-league game on its schedule.
The ultimate questions remain. Can Sparks snap its winless skid this season? And if so, are there multiple wins on the local club’s slate?
“I think there are,” Kittrell said. “But it’s still a matter of taking it one week at a time and staying heathy. That will be big for us. Right now, we’re only starting one or two players both ways. But in the DI-A, if you lose a starter, you probably not only lose that starter, but also a backup on the other side of the ball and a special teams guy. Staying healthy will be key. We have to get better, but I think there are wins out there.”