Sparks had eight seniors on its roster in last season’s 1-8 campaign. This year, it has 22 athletes in their final year at Sparks High.
Dominated by youth and inexperience a season ago, the Railroaders had trouble closing games in the fourth quarter. Despite owning a losing streak that dated back to 2011 for much of the season, coach Rob Kittrell’s bunch was in its share of games late in the season.
In the fifth game of the season, Truckee led Sparks just 7-6 in the fourth quarter before a fourth-quarter touchdown accounted for the final 14-6 margin. Three games later, Sparks was tied with South Tahoe, 7-7, only for a fourth-quarter field goal extended the skid.
Finally, in the last game of the season, Sparks had a two-score lead and hung on for a 27-20 road victory over Wooster. With a senior-laded squad in 2015, Kittrell hopes the team’s age will help avoid the same fourth-quarter woes.
“We talked a lot about that,” he said. “Going from the Wooster game and when you look at that first week against Dayton (50-6 loss) which was just a complete disaster. They looked like a team playing their first varsity game. Once we hit that Truckee game, they started figuring out how to be competitive.”
The strong close to last season, the learned ability to be competitive and a year of experience under their belts was a building block for Sparks throughout the offseason.
“We tried to build off that in the offseason,” Kittrell said. “We just reminded them we’re on a winning streak right now, just keep working hard.”
With so much coming back for Sparks this fall, the team’s losses to graduation were limited. Although, it will have to replace TE/LB Gerado Valencia, FB/LB Zach Hix and DE Moises Collazo.
Among the key returners this fall are the team’s leading rusher last season, junior Hunter O’Meara who averaged nearly 60 yards a game), junior OL/DL Hunter Nobbs, senior OL/DL David Tuikolongahau and senior quarterback Sylis Sanchez.
Sanchez ran the Railroaders’ offense a season ago but Kittrell has seen definitive strides in his second-year quarterback’s game.
“We’ve seen him grow confidence wise a lot,” Kittrell said. “He’s feeling a lot more comfortable when he hits that third step (in his drop back), throwing the ball, the ball is coming out. He’s not thinking.”
Sanchez will be asked to throw the ball more than last season but the success of the offense will be dictated by the unit’s ability to run the ball. The majority of the offensive line comes back this season and Kittrell expects the group to be able to win at the line of scrimmage and give Sparks a time of possession advantage.
On the defensive side of the ball, it’s going to be about pursuit. With a divide in athletic ability still in place between Sparks and the top tier of the DI-A North, the Railroaders’ defensive success will be determined largely by want-to.
“Eleven helmets to the ball, effort,” Kittrell said about his team’s defensive keys. “If you have that effort, everybody is in there working on their assignments, being in the right spot and pursuit to the ball. We (need) those two things.”
Yes, there is optimism is Sparks’ camp. However, that can be said for nearly every high school football team across the country at this point in the season. It isn’t overwhelmingly difficult to see the Railroaders improve upon last year’s 1-8 finish but Kittrell isn’t thinking long term.
So coach, have you talked about goals for the season?
“Yeah,” he said. “The Spring Creek game.”
Sparks opens the season tonight at 7 p.m. at Spring Creek.