Playoff bound: North Tahoe Lakers have come a long way
When the North Tahoe football team takes the field on Friday against Pershing County, it will mark the first time in more than a decade the program has played in a postseason game.
The Lakers program has made leaps and bounds the past few years, going from being shuttered in 2014, to a winless campaign in in 2015, to a 4-4 league record this year and berth in the Class 2A playoffs.
“It’s a big honor,” said senior quarterback Thomas Mercogliano. “We’ve been working super hard for four years and we definitely deserve to be here.”
Rebirth of a program
In 2014 North Tahoe didn’t have a football team due to only eight players showing up for the first day of practice, forcing longtime Head Coach Scott Everist to scrap the season.
“That year we didn’t have a team was on of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do as a coach,” said Everist.
“Some of the group of (current) seniors were playing Pop Warner. We got some of those guys going and said, ‘This will be the basis of trying to rebuild.’ They responded well. There were some tough times at first when they were freshmen and sophomores playing varsity, but they powered through that and are having a nice season this year.”
Those freshman would struggle to an 0-9 record. The team improved the following year, playing a mix of eight-man and 11-man football. The Lakers then returned to Class 2A play in 2017, and went 1-5 in Northern League play.
This year the team got off to a rocky start with losses to California School for the Deaf and Incline to open the season, but have since turned things around, winning three of five games down the stretch to reach the postseason.
“It’s really cool to see it,” said senior Dalton Lamberth. “I remember a few years ago, we had to go play for Truckee because there was no team here. Coming back and seeing the team rebuilt — it’s been something.”
As a four-year starter at quarterback, Mercogliano has been nothing short of phenomenal.
In his career, Mercogliano is one of four players in Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association history, regardless of class, to surpass 10,000 total yards.
He’s led the team with 1,889 passing yards this season and 19 touchdowns. On the ground, Mercogliano has rushed for a team-high 1,327 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Junior Cooper Kohnen has been Mercogliano’s favorite target this year, hauling in a team-high 20 receptions for 514 yards and eight touchdowns.
Senior Phillip Lopez has lead the defense the season with 72 tackles, followed by seniors Raul Estrada (62) and Eli Snyder (59). Junior Guthrie Goss has a team-high 4.0 sacks, and senior Tony Frankenberg leads the secondary with three interceptions, thus far.
“It’s taken a lot of work,” said Eli Snyder, who’s among the team’s leading defensive players. “We’ve had a lot guys step up into positions that they don’t normally play, and they’ve gotten really good at those positions. Everyone is doing their best and playing their part — that’s all we can do.”
Part of the team’s success this season has come from the contributions of a solid group of juniors and underclassmen.
“That was one of the question marks going in,” said Everist. “We knew we had a good senior group but would the younger guys rise up, and they have. That has a lot to do with the senior leadership.”
North Tahoe has had players step up all over the field from Kohnen emerging as a playmaker at receiver to Goss wreaking havoc in opposing backfields.
“With nine seniors there’s a lot of open gaps,” said Lamberth. “A lot of places to fill, and the underclassmen are really starting to step up.”
Heading into the postseason the team’s group of seniors said they feel confident in handing the reigns over to the next crop of players after rebuilding the program at North Tahoe.
“It’s exciting,” said Lopez. “They start from nothing and you see them grow up and how they get better every day. You see how they get more mean, more tough, more into the game. They just want to play, so I think I’m going to be excited for next year to see how it goes.”
While reaching the postseason after more than a decade is a big accomplishment, North Tahoe’s players are looking to extend the season, but will need to pull of a major upset of No. 1 seed Pershing County (8-1, 8-0 Northern League).
The team’s clashed in the season finale on Oct. 27, and the Mustangs rolled to 50-12 win, but many of the Lakers feel the contest wasn’t their best performance.
“Tackling and placement, our defense was just all over the place,” said Lamberth on the game. “We watched a lot of film and we’ve got our defense aligned.”
Coach Everist pointed to blocking and sustaining drives on offense as key to advancing to the finals of the four-team bracket, and other players highlighted the importance of getting off to quick start, especially in a hostile environment on the road.
“We need to come out of the gates tough,” said Frankenberg. “We’ve always been a second half team, but against these guys it won’t work.”
The game between the teams is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Friday at Yerington High School.
“I told (the seniors), ‘Focus on this, enjoy this while it’s here, because it will never be like this again,’” said Everist.
Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact him at email@example.com.