Outlook: In search of better balance, Notre Dame hopes it's been found.
Last the Saints were a talented bunch, but the schedule was unforgiving. A 5-5 record was still just good enough to get them into the playoffs by a whisker on the final night of the season (despite a loss to Horizon), but a blowout loss at Tucson Salpointe Catholic ended their season.
Notre Dame – at 866 kids the second-smallest school in Division II to St. Mary’s based on enrollment numbers – has a solid contingent of returns and one of Div. II’s best all-around players in Jordan Schlueter, and the Saints hope a slightly more balanced schedule leads to a better mix of competition and victories in the power rankings.
There was a scramble after three schools were shifted out of Notre Dame’s section (VII) late and put into Section I, which meant three “freedom” games suddenly had to be filled. The result being a tough first two weeks of the season, a couple more winnable games in between, and the likes of Chaparral, Paradise Valley and Corona del Sol added in.
The Saints have six starters back on each side of the ball, but they start with Schlueter, whom Gregory joked will play “3- or 4- or 5-ways,” and will play running back, wide receiver, defensive back or linebacker, and special teams.
“He’s an in-shape kid and he’s top-of-the-line player,” Gregory said. “He’ll do everything.”
Four offensive lineman return, led by 3-year starter Matt Roth (6-foot-2, 265 pounds) and tackle Nick Reinhardt, who won a national long snapping competition and will be part of the Under Armour game in Florida in January.
This shapes up for the Saints to have a solid running game, which would be a most comforting asset for new QB Thomas Lehman, a senior with a solid arm and enough mobility to not make him a “sitting duck” in the backfield.
As for opponents’ backfields, the Saints lost Parker Zellers, a big-time defensive end, to graduation. The rest of the defensive line was a mish-mash.
This year’s group up front could follow a similar path.
“Somehow we have to hope some of the offensive lineman can go both ways in big situations, or else piece it together on the defensive line similar to last year,” Gregory said. “We’ve thrown a lot of things together but we’ll figure out a way.”
The linebackers, however, are in better shape with three-year starter Tom Archer, Michael Cole (who’ll fill huge shoes left behind by Nick Taffuri) and Phil Caniglia. Gregory also had high praise for the potential of Christian Rodriguez as a defensive end/linebacker/tight end.
They’ll remain the Saints, a team which relies on running to set up the pass, defense and good health because of a lack of depth. It’s worked pretty well during the school’s history from the late Scot Bemis to Gregory. This year’s team is counting on a little better seat at the postseason party.
“We understand who we are the amount of kids we have,” Gregory said. “Let’s go play and hopefully it works out.”
Division II, Section VII
Coach: Gary Gregory
Last year's record: 5-6, lost to Tucson Salpointe Catholic in first round of Div. II playoffs
Returning starters: 6 on offense/ 6 on defense
Top returners: QB Thomas Lehman (9-17 passing, 87 yards); RB/WR/DB Jordan Schlueter (46 carries, 332 yards, 2 TD; 9 rec., 230 yards, 2 TD; 474 return yards; 66 tackles, 4 INT); OL Matt Roth; OL Nick Reinhardt; LB Tom Archer (97 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks, 3 INT); LB Phil Caniglia (39 tackles); LB Christian Rodriguez (50 tackles, 1 sack, 2 FF)
Aug. 30 vs. Betty Fairfax; Sept. 6 at Desert Mountain; Sept. 12 at Liberty; Sept. 20 vs. Poston Butte; Sept. 27 at St. Mary's; Oct. 4 at Chaparral; Oct. 11 vs. Cactus Shadows; Oct. 18 at Arcadia; Oct. 25 vs. Paradise Valley; Nov. 1 at Corona del Sol
Sept. 6 at Desert Mountain: Despite the size difference in student body, the relatively close proximity makes for a lot of friend going against one another. Though the Saints especially are a different bunch, these past two matchups have been 28-24 (Notre Dame) and 40-37 (Desert Mountain).
Oct. 4 at Chaparral: Playing Desert Mountain in Week 2 (and Peoria Liberty in Week 1) will be great litmus tests, but the Firebirds will truly test Notre Dame to see if the Saints are worthy of consideration among the top teams in Div. II. This is another place where depth comes into play.
Nov. 1 at Corona del Sol: Gregory, for one, believes Corona will be better than a year ago, and this is where the Saints sat on the fence a year ago, pessimistic about getting into the playoffs after losing to Horizon, but eventually being proven wrong. A win here might shove the Saints off the fence.
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or (480) 898-6576.