This is part two of a two-part series previewing the upcoming football season for Mesa high school teams.
On an August night in Mesa, the football program at Red Mountain High School practiced steps away from its renovated home.
The Lions’ grass field, implanted in the 1980s, was removed in the summer and replaced with turf. With fans expected to return to the stands this summer, the inauguration of a new, upgraded playing venue is in order. Yet it is not the only celebration Red Mountain is looking forward to: the Lions want a title.
Talent can be found across the roster, from junior wideouts Ja’Kobi Lane and Lenox Lawson to longtime starting linebacker Skylar Edmonds. Junior Carter Crispin is taking the reins under center, with senior Josiah Villanueva is back to lead the ground attack.
A 3-4 season in 2020 was not the goal for the Lions. The pandemic removed spring and summer practice and allowed the coaching staff to meet with their players just a month before kickoff.
Red Mountain is looking to change things this season.
“You can talk and you can be talented, but now you gotta produce,” coach Mike Peterson said. “That’s what we’ve gotta get out of the boys, what we expect, and set a high standard. And then they need to meet it. Production is what we’re expecting out of them.” ‘
The Lions’ chase for a 6A title will be marked by Peterson’s tenets of high school football: playing together and playing fearless. Calling the game “the last bastion of team sports,” Peterson looks forward to seeing the skill of his roster on gameday, as well as their ability to unify and overcome adversity.
Additionally, Red Mountain’s players have another quality: familiarity.
When he was younger, Crispin played football with Lane and Lawson, experiences that have contributed to the camaraderie of the offense thus far in the offseason. The connection between the three started when they were seven years old, and will be a key factor for the Lions’ aerial attack.
Lawson, who reeled in 12 catches for 111 yards and one touchdown, will play in the slot this season as Lane and freshman Taveon Sueing take the outside receiver spots.
“Ja’Kobi’s better at going up, mossing people,” Lawson said. “He got huge hands, tall. They know I’m faster and then Taveon… he’s kind of both.”
The Lions’ receiving corps was boosted with the arrival of Sueing. Lane, who called him a “freak of nature,” said his raw talent is one of the most exciting parts of his game, but he is just one of a group of impressive underclassmen.
According to Lane, what makes the younger players promising is that they watch their teammates perform, but do not try to imitate their moves in practice. Instead, players use agility and skills to build confidence and develop their identities as athletes.
The underclassmen have also been working closely with the upperclassmen towards improving Red Mountain’s on-field performance. This summer, practices focused largely on chemistry and working together on the field. On both offense and defense, players staying in sync has been a priority.
“One thing we have to make sure of is make sure we go out of a game (not) regretting anything,” Edmonds, a captain, said. “We should go, every game, balls to the wall, going hard, regardless (of) who it is: Dobson to Liberty to Mountain View. We should come out the game either bloody, beat up or not even fazed because it’s something that easy to us.”
Both during and out of practices, players have used the summer months to hone their individual craft. Looking to improve the mental aspect of his game, Lane spent time understanding coverages, improving his route running tree and learning to improvise once the ball is snapped.
On weekends, Lane joins his longtime friends Crispin and Lawson to run routes and test drive an offense that Crispin said will prominently feature the junior wide receiver. The signal-caller, who said he can “make all the throws,” will coordinate an offense that his head coach believes can create “big things.”
Containing receivers who can run vertical routes and create space, as well as a running back who can grab checkdowns and screen passes, Red Mountain’s passing offense may be one of the top units in the East Valley. Crispin is aware of the responsibility, but says he has been waiting for the opportunity that awaits him throughout his entire football career.
In the near future, there is another opportunity for him and the rest of his teammates to chase: bringing a championship home to East Brown Road.
“It’s gonna be so much fun to get that youth feeling again when you’re playing with your guys,” Lane said. “It’s just a really good time winning football games.”
Mesa football programs ready for 2021 season
A successful 6-2 season in 2020 has Mountain View on the road to success. With key pieces returning, the Toros will attempt to be in contention for a 6A title.
Quarterback Willy Roberts returns after throwing for 877 yards and six touchdowns, as leading rusher Reese Marziale. Top target Jackson Bowers, a four-star tight end with offers from programs including Arizona State, Utah and Washington, looks to build on his sophomore season after hauling in 25 catches for 330 yards and four touchdowns.
Leading tackler, defensive end Malaki Ta’ase, is back after registering 61 takedowns, seven tackles-for-loss and 13 sacks.
After a difficult 2020 season, in which it went 1-5, Desert Ridge looks to flip the script on last year’s campaign to improve its fortunes in Division 6A.
Quarterback Hunter Maxwell is back after throwing for 250 yards and one touchdown and will likely succeed Austin Kolb. Three of his top targets return in Lance Holtzclaw (186 yards), Jacob Condie (146 yards) and KJ Miniefield (134 yards and one touchdown). On the ground, Kiyante James will likely receive the bulk of the carries after rushing for 156 yards.
On defense, Holtzclaw, who also plays defensive end, is the only member of the team returning that has intercepted a pass. Cornerback Roman Mangini, who racked up 42 tackles, and Holtzclaw — who also had 27 takedowns, nine tackles-for-loss and two sacks, will help guide the Jaguars’ defense.
The Coyotes are looking to rebuild after notching only two wins in 2020, including just one in their section — 6A East Valley.
Under center will be Kade Steen, the only returning quarterback on the roster. Two rushers return from last season, who have combined for just 28 yards. Luke Delprete will likely be seen as the leader of the running backs, while Joey Sites returns after reeling in nine catches for 115 yards and one touchdown.
On the other side of the ball, Jared Anderson was one of Skyline’s best defensive players in 2020 at linebacker. The Coyotes’ defensive backs also have a great opportunity to prove themselves, since no player on the 2021 roster has an interception.