Truckee football fall preview: Peering in a new season
Sierra Sun sports editor
There are the constants that define Truckee High football, like the Wing-T offense and the expectations of a state championship run. But it may be two diversions from the norm that allow the Wolverines to claim the 3A title in 2004.
For one, Truckee head coach Bob Shaffer enters his ninth year with the most personnel (53) he’s ever had at his disposal ” without a single sophomore on the roster.
“Almost everybody has fewer players than us,” Shaffer said. “There aren’t too many teams that have 50 kids out, not even in the 4A. We’ve never had more than 38.”
It’s a scenario he’s been looking forward to for two years ” ever since his current batch of seniors were sophomores ” because it will allow Truckee players to focus on either offense or defense ” not both. That’s something unheard of for a 3A school and still rare for a 4A school.
“We just felt that was an edge that we could have over other teams,” Shaffer said. “Almost everybody’s best kids are going both ways. In a four-quarter game, there’s no way humanly possible that they could go full speed on every play.”
Quality high school football players are used to spending a lot of time on the field, but Shaffer said he thinks Truckee’s advantage will take effect in the fourth quarter.
“If we’re not winning it early, we’re going to eventually wear them down and get to a point where we’re going to win the game just because of fatigue factor,” he said. “That’s what we preach and what we live by.”
Shaffer does not expect to have the same numbers in 2005, but he will surely enjoy it while it lasts. Although he predicts the 15 to 20-plus number of players should give Truckee an edge, Shaffer said he also keeps a sense of humor about it.
“You could have 75 out there,” he said, “but if you only have four good players, it doesn’t help you out very much.”
The second difference that improves Truckee’s championship hopes is the promotion of Bishop Manogue to the 4A. Manogue shut out Truckee in the 2002 3A title game, 37-0, and pummeled the Wolverines 63-21 in the 2003 regular season on its way to 23 straight victories and consecutive 3A titles.
However, had Manogue remained in the 3A, Shaffer isn’t so convinced it would have meant another landslide defeat to the Reno school.
“The last two years were their best years as far as talent-wise,” he said. “Our junior class beat them when they were freshmen and beat them last year when they were sophomores. They would have loved to play them for two more years.”
Without question, the departure of Manogue eases the pressure on Truckee, but Shaffer doesn’t feel like his team’s job gets any easier.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” he said. “It isn’t like Manogue’s gone and we’re automatically going to go in and win this thing”
The winning tradition in Truckee varsity football has been strong since the day Shaffer took over the helm in 1995 ” and it was strong before that.
Shaffer is 75-14 (.843) in eight years as the Truckee head coach, leading the team to three 3A state championships in that time. The program as a whole won three 2A state titles from 1983 to 1993.
Truckee lost to Virgin Valley 28-21 in the 2003 3A semifinals, lost to Manogue in the 2002 state championship, but has won a 3A title as recently as 2001. Needless to say, the annual Truckee football goal is clear.
“We don’t train to just win the league, and say, ‘All right,'” Shaffer said. “We look at the big picture.”
There are other changes to the face of the Northern 3A besides the departure of Manogue, including the demotion of Rite of Passage and Yerington to the Northern 2A. This creates a tougher league schedule for Truckee, but Shaffer welcomes that.
“It keeps the team focused, so they aren’t necessarily overlooking anybody or going through the motions and starting to develop bad habits,” he said. “The tougher your week-in and week-out schedule is, the better off you’re going to be prepared for playoffs when that comes around and you start facing the best teams.”
Shaffer also said that due to a stronger dedication by coaches, the pack of Northern 3A teams in general seem to improve each year.
“There aren’t any gimmes anymore,” he said. “When I first came into the league, probably the biggest thing I noticed was it seemed like teams weren’t quite as prepared. (Now), a lot more schools are lifting (weights) throughout the year, instead of just a couple months. All the schools are getting larger, too, which usually means you have a larger talent pool to choose from.”
Spring Creek and Lowry are two of the teams that Shaffer mentions that pose the biggest threat to Truckee this season.
“Spring Creek has always been a nemesis for us, and Lowry’s group that are seniors now beat our JV team when they were both in 10th grade,” he said. “With both those teams, we had to pull it out at the end of the game last year. In the (Southern 3A), Moapa Valley’s probably the best team athletically.”
In tonight’s season opener at Hug High in Reno (see preview), Shaffer said he is simply looking for consistency. This is in response to what he saw in the first two scrimmages which included action with South Tahoe, Lassen and North Tahoe: “A lot of peaks and valleys where we look good on this play and look horrible on the next,” Shaffer said.
The Wing-T offense is a staple of Truckee football from Pop Warner to the high school level, and Shaffer has been running it since before he joined the Truckee staff in 1994 and took over as head coach in 1995.
Shaffer ran the Wing-T at three different high schools in Ohio ” the last in Pymatuning Valley ” before moving to California. When he took over for Ron Estabrook, the system was already in place at Truckee and Shaffer wasn’t about to change it.
“It’s kind of an equalizer,” said Shaffer about why he prefers an offense that relies on team speed more than a hard-nosed style of play. “You don’t have to have big kids year-in and year-out to be able to blow people off the line of scrimmage; we do a lot more angle blocking. (Defenses) aren’t really sure sometimes who’s getting the ball. A lot of times all you need is to get their feet in cement just for a fraction of a second.”
Shaffer has averaged more than nine wins a season with the offense, so expect it to be around for a few more years.
The main challenge for the 2004 Truckee offense is to recover from the losses of starting running backs Nik Smith and Mike Hackley. That will mean more dependence on its returning starting quarterback, senior Paul Tierney.
“I feel we have a lot of question marks,” Shaffer said, “so we’re going to count on Paul Tierney to have another successful season. I think he’s matured ” just his leadership in the huddle. Now that he’s a senior, when he steps into the huddle, they listen and they know that he’s got total control. But if somebody makes a mistake, he’ll encourage them.”
At only 6-foot, 170 pounds, Tierney threw for an NIAA record 2,450 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2003. Although he’s still basically the same size, his right arm has gotten stronger, Shaffer said, and Tierney thinks so too.
“Last year, I used to be able to throw the ball as far as I could and the receiver would run under it,” Tierney said. “Now I’m throwing it farther, and they can’t catch up to it.”
Add the stronger arm to a stronger sense of confidence in his senior year, and Tierney might just break former Truckee quarterback (2000-02) Kevin Schlesinger’s all-time NIAA career record of 4,949 yards.
“I’m feeling more confident than I did last year, after being a junior and starting,” Tierney said. “It’s amazing how much more confident I feel; I’m excited about the season and leading (my team).”
Tierney wouldn’t have broke Schlesinger’s 2002 single season record for passing yards if it weren’t for his No. 1 target ” senior wide receiver Jamie Maehler. Maehler has already established an NIAA-high 2,202 career receiving yards, and he broke the single season mark last year with 1,223 yards ” on 60 catches ” averaging about 111 yards per game.
Tierney cites Maehler’s work ethic as the main reason he has become one of Northern Nevada’s most efficient receivers.
“Jamie is always running good routes and he hustles all the time,” Tierney said. “He always wants it passed to him, so he usually gets open ” and he’s quick. This year they’ll be all over him, but we have some other threats that can open him up.”
Tierney will look to senior Gordon Neelands and junior Brandon Peterson as alternate pass-catchers if Maehler is not available. As a motioning wingback in the Wing-T, Maehler should also receive a couple handoffs per game.
The running game is the big question for Truckee, but the only problem is that the team doesn’t have a primary, go-to back. Right now, senior Nick Cabral and juniors Mike Carbajal and Mike Lopez will platoon at the running back positions.
Truckee has three returning starters on the offensive line, including senior tackle Ian Casey, senior center Logan Hunt and senior tackle Kendal Burton. At 225, 190 and 220 pounds respectively, the threesome fits the Wing-T’s emphasis on speed well.
Tierney doesn’t quite buy into the strategy of players not playing both ways, but it’s nothing personal. Tierney did not play defense last year, but he feels he is losing some potential weapons on offense.
“There’s some kids on our defense that I wish were receivers ” there’s Robert Jones and John Hooper who both play corner(back),” he said. “There’s some lineman on the D-line who I also wish were on the offensive line,” he said.
Truckee runs a defense influenced by a clinic Shaffer attended in Burlingame, Calif., put on by former Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Fritz Schurmer around the time Shaffer took over as Truckee head coach.
Known as a “5-linebacker Eagle defense,” it is built around a two down-lineman, five linebacker style of defense. Much like the Wing-T, Shaffer implemented the defense because he felt he could better utilize team speed. Right now, Truckee lists nine linebackers on its roster, but none over 200 pounds. In fact, the defensive unit as a whole is quite small.
“When you look at our defensive front right now, the only big guy we have up there is Benji (Islas) ” the rest of the guys are all under 200 pounds,” Shaffer said.
Despite the possible size disadvantage, Truckee loses only three starters on defense: J.R. Murphy, Bruce Knez and Chris Anderson. That amounts to one player lost on the line, linebacker unit and secondary.
Jimmy Williams, a First Team All-State 3A selection at middle linebacker last season, said he hasn’t felt the vibe from his teammates yet on the defensive side of the ball.
“I’m feeling confident, but there’s just something missing,” said Williams, who has to play with all of his 5 foot 5, 170-pound frame. “We just gotta get the intensity going. I think after this first game it will open a lot of kids’ eyes up and they’ll realize that we can’t just bring that on Friday night or Saturday afternoon; we gotta bring it every day in practice. Then it will roll over into the games.”
Williams supports his coaches decision to have players focus on either offense or defense.
“We can concentrate on one side of the ball so we know exactly what we’re doing and our assignments,” said Williams, who played both ways as a freshman and sophomore on the JV team. “Us going one way definitely helps us out in the fourth quarter. I know I’ve seen teams just dying out there. You can look in their eyes and you can just tell they want to get off the field.”
The loss of J.R. Murphy, an excellent punter and place kicker, may be the most devastating loss to the Wolverines. Shaffer knows special teams is a critical part of football.
“Special teams can be a huge advantage or a disadvantage, depending on if you’re good at it,” he said. “We try to emphasize to our kids the importance of that part of the game. They’ve got to understand field position is critical.”
Ironically, nose tackle Benji Islas, one of the biggest players on the Truckee squad at 270 pounds, takes over the place-kicking duties. Maehler or Randy Nunez take over punting duties, with the early season nod in favor of Maehler. Ben Tonon will likely win the job as punt returner, but the kickoff return job is still open between five players, Shaffer said.
Truckee kicks off the 2004 season at Hug High School in Reno on Sept. 3, at 7:30 p.m. The junior varsity kickoff is at 4:45 p.m.
Day Date Opponent Time Site
Fri. Sept. 3 Hug 7:30 p.m. Hug
Sat. Sept. 11 Scrimmage 11 a.m. Truckee
Fri. Sept. 17 Sparks 7:30 p.m. Sparks
Sat. Sept. 25 Spring Creek 1:30 p.m. Truckee
Sat. Oct. 2 Damonte Ranch 1:30 p.m. Truckee
Fri. Oct. 8 Fernley 7:30 p.m. Fernley
Sat. Oct. 16 Dayton 1:30 p.m. Truckee
Fri. Oct. 22 Lowry 7:30 p.m. Lowry
Sat. Oct. 30 North Tahoe 1:30 p.m. Truckee
Fri./Sat. Nov. 5-6 Northern 3A playoffs Highest seed hosts
Fri./Sat. Nov. 12-13 3A State semifinals TBA
Sat. Nov. 20 3A State Championship TBA