Galena plays Las Vegas for state title
Appeal Sports Writer
RENO – In professional football a rugged preseason is not necessarily a good thing, but sometimes in high school football, it can be the recipe for success.
Such has been the case for the Las Vegas Wildcats this season, who have parlayed a challenging preseason schedule into an 11-2 season that culminates on Saturday, when the Wildcats face the Galena Grizzlies in the Class 4A state championship game at Sam Boyd Stadium, in Las Vegas.
The Wildcats were only 2-2 in the preseason. After working over Del Sol, 40-12, Las Vegas dropped a pair of games to Madera (Calif.), 32-13, and Skyline (Utah), 35-28.
“This year we scheduled a tough preseason to get us to this situation,” said third-year Las Vegas head coach Chris Faircloth. “It should benefit us (against Galena). We had a soft preseason in 2000 and it hurt us in the postseason. This year we scheduled tough out-of-town teams. We took two losses. We didn’t do well, didn’t do the things we needed to win.”
That changed when the Wildcats defeated Pine View (St. George, Utah), 19-14, in its preseason finale.
“That was a really tough game for us,” said Faircloth, whose Wildcats are the defending state champions and have appeared in five of the last six state championship games. “Then when we hit league, things started to roll and we’ve been on a roll ever since.”
Las Vegas won the Sunrise Region championship, outscoring its league rivals by a combined 251-63. The Wildcats have been similarly dominant in the postseason defeating Green Valley (46-7), Canyon Springs (55-21) and Del Sol (38-8).
Galena coach Steve Struzyk, whose 10-3 Grizzlies are making their first-ever appearance in the state finals, crunched film of the Wildcats all week and came away impressed.
“They’re solid,” Struzyk said of the Wildcats. “We’ve been looking for weaknesses for three or four days and I don’t know that they have any. Offensively, defensively, and special teams, it’s a solid, solid group.
“It’s a scary group that has been there before – they won last year and have been in the title game before. They’re used to the hype. We’re coming into it fresh. They’re experienced, we’re fresh.”
Las Vegas is 37-6 under Faircloth, who began his tenure at Las Vegas in 2001 as the assistant coach under Kris Cinkovich. Although the Wildcats have won 15 state championships, 13 of them came before 1960. Nevertheless, they defeated Hug 23-0 last year and have been a near constant fixture in the state finals since 2001, when they won their 14th championship, 17-10, over McQueen.
It’s been an historical season for Galena, which won its first regional championship this year with a 23-20 victory over Bishop Manogue on Nov. 18. The Grizzlies also took a 35-0 win over Palo Verde in its first appearance in the state semifinals last Saturday.
“Galena’s a very, very good team,” Faircloth said. “They’re a typical Northern team from the standpoint they’re real physical. They’re tough; they play hard. We have to play mistake-free ball to beat them. We’ll have our hands full. We haven’t seen a team as physical as them – except maybe Madera.”
The Grizzlies are led offensively by senior running back Jimmy Sargent, who has rushed for 2,016 yards and 23 touchdowns, and quarterback Jacob Anderson, who has thrown for 1,438 yards and 19 TDs.
Galena’s defense has also stepped to the fore – it stopped Palo Verde’s double-wing attack and forced five turnovers – and kicker Chris Ewald had a pair of game-winning field goals against Manogue and Reed, which it beat, 39-36, in the regional semifinals.
In addition, Galena avenged regular-season losses to Reed and North Valleys (18-14) in the playoffs.
The Grizzlies’ defense will be challenged by senior quarterback O’Ryan Bradley, who has thrown for 2,520 yards and 27 touchdowns. Bradley has thrown only four interceptions and has also rushed for 632 yards.
Bradley will be looking to find his two favorite targets, senior wide receivers Chris Kelly (46 receptions for 789 yards) and D’Angelo Salsberry (45 catches for 624 yards).
Senior Jason Theard is the Wildcats’ leading rusher, with 80 carries for 687 yards.
Struzyk said his defense will try to impose its physicality on the Wildcats, but that’s easier said than done.
Said Struzyk: “That’s our plan, of course. I hope the team comes out and plays a tough style of ball – hit ’em hard, hit ’em a lot. Our problem is we have to catch them. They’re fast, athletic. They’re all over the field.”
Struzyk said the same applies to the Las Vegas defense, which is led by 6-foot-3, 260-pound defensive lineman Billy Winn (14 sacks), 6-2, 220-pound linebacker Nate Carter (Las Vegas’ leading tackler with 90) and defensive back Carlin Pretlow, who has six interceptions.
“Their defensive line and their linebackers go sideline-to-sideline,” Struzyk said. “Their D-backs run after you wherever you go. You can tell on film that they’re very well-coached. They’re a group of kids that know their jobs and just do ’em.”
Galena may be inexperienced in terms of state championships, but it has already traveled south once this season. The Grizzlies opened their season at Shadow Ridge, losing 24-8.
But as the Wildcats have shown, a rough beginning could end up helping the Grizzlies in the long run.
“It will – especially for the travel part of it,” Struzyk said of his team’s previous southern excursion. “The kids know they’re in for a long bus trip (today). They understand that they’ll be sleeping in new beds. It’s new for us, but we’ve been there before.
“We’re playing another tough southern team. It will be the biggest stage these kids have been on. I’m counting on them to be ready to play a physical, very good game.”
The Galena-Las Vegas game begins Saturday at 12:30 p.m.