A state championship.
That is the expectation for the Fallon football team.
Coming so close, but falling so hard in the chase for a state title last year left a bitter taste in their mouths. Fallon returned to the big game for the first time in 35 years only to be shutout in a 17-0 loss to Faith Lutheran.
Despite the brutal loss, the Greenwave returns a loaded roster filled with speed, talent and physical forces.
“Obviously, we have high goals,” Fallon coach Brooke Hill said. “Anything we did in the past means nothing this year. We have to find our identity … and build on that.”
The summer, though, has planted some doubts as a freak injury and several suspensions for conduct detrimental to the team —all-state selections Tyler Bagby and Cameron Matzen — threaten to jeopardize those expectations.
The injury came in early August when standout junior linebacker Evan Bitter and teammate Riley Williams’ heads collided. Bitter suffered a concussion and is out at least two more weeks and could be lost for the season pending test results.
Despite the ominous start to the season, the Greenwave, though, are determined to bond as a team and continue their drive toward a championship.
“We’re focusing more on being a unit,” senior captain Justin Hatfield said. “We’ve had some drawbacks. We got to bring everybody together to fight for each other and the team.”
Although Fallon has its own concerns and questions, so does the rest of the Northern Division I-A.
Lowry must replace the reigning player of the year and four all-state selections, while Elko must fill the voids on its offensive and defensive lines. Fernley, the fourth playoff qualifier from last season, breaks in a new quarterback and lacks size.
Wooster, meanwhile, may make a playoff push behind quarterback Hunter Triplett and perennial power Truckee, who stumbled to a 3-6 record last year, aims to rebound with a more seasoned club.
But for Fallon, the defending Northern DI-A co-champs, what issues rest with their league counterparts is irrelevant. Hill, as he has done throughout his tenure, is focused on the upcoming game, which pits the Wave against a solid Cardinal-Newman squad.
“We are using last year’s state game to motivate us to get back to that state game,” senior all-state cornerback Nathan Heck said.
Leading the way is senior quarterback Joe Pyle, who will make his first-career start Saturday against Cardinal-Newman (Calif.) in The Honor Bowl in Loomis, Calif.
Pyle, who is listed at 6-foot, 3-inches and 200 pounds, played sparingly last season (1-for-3, 5 yards), but is ready to make the jump. However, he did injure his wrist in the first series of Saturday’s scrimmage against Spanish Springs.
Despite the freak incident, Pyle will be ready to go against Cardinal-Newman. He was impressive at the Douglas 7-on-7 passing tournament, but full contact is another game.
Hill said Pyle has the tools to lead another dominant offensive attack. Last season, Fallon averaged 41.2 points per game.
The skill positions, meanwhile, also set the Wave apart from their Northern DI-A counterparts. With the suspensions, though, the vertical passing game may lose a step, but Hill is confident in those players.
Nathan Heck (16 carries, 204 yards, two touchdowns) leads the stable of running backs along with Trae Workman, Charles Fulks (11 carries, 58 yards) and Jake Ernst (24 carries, 93 yards). Each brings speed, but Heck and Workman, despite their smaller frames, pack a punch.
The rotation of backs, meanwhile, allows Heck, a second-team all-state selection at cornerback, and Workman, penciled in to start at outside linebacker, to take breathers on offense.
“Nate is a two-way guy, Trae is a two-way guy and we feel we have quality,” Hill said. “We got to make sure we run the football.”
Catching passes, meanwhile, is a new group of receivers — at least for the first game — consisting of Connor Richardson, Jordan Schultz, Cameron Beyer, Dylan Jabines, Bradlee Porter and tight end T.J. Mauga.
“Potentially, we can be very good,” Hill said of his passing game. “If we can get that going, we still expect to be explosive in that area.”
Up front, meanwhile, is where Hill said must improve. Tradition has become the big play, but come the postseason long, sustained drives are critical to win.
Hill stressed to the unit, especially in the opener, to stay on blocks longer and for the backs to take what the defense allows. Four- and five-yard gains keep drives alive and chew up the clock, Hill added.
The offensive line, however, returns a trio of starters from last season including junior center Braxton Hunter, guards Cody Stadtman and Justin Hatfield and tackles Sean and Taylen Cordes.
“We expect a lot out of them,” Hill said. “We have to be able to lean on them.”
The defensive, meanwhile, lost only two players to graduation and is, perhaps, the best unit in the division. Fallon’s effort against Faith Lutheran was solid as the Wave held the Crusaders to one long TD drive, forced a turnover on the other and allowed 10 points from short-field situations.
Last season, the Wave allowed 13.8 points per game, tallied 23 interceptions, 19 fumble recoveries and 34 sacks.
The defensive line was superb throughout the season, especially in the Wave’s state semifinal win over Moapa Valley. Leading the unit is Hatfield, who had a team-high 10 sacks, three hurries and also had two fumble recoveries.
Joining him are Mauga, the rising sophomore star already receiving Division I interest, Najee Stanford, Bradlee Stands, Hunter Holcomb and Abraham Barrera.
Their ability to hold up their counterparts on the line and pressure the quarterback ignites the defensive spark.
“Our depth this year is good, and we have good depth,” Hatfield said.
The linebackers, minus Bitter, are a stout and physical bunch led by Williams. The junior broke out last season with 82 tackles, one sack and one fumble recovery.
He’s paired with Johnny Mayo and Tim Rosario in the inside, while outside are Workman, Schultz and Kyler Brabender.
“They are fast, physical kids who know the scheme,” Hill said. “We expect to be very good on defense. We return eight of 11 and expect to be a better defense than last year. We’ve added a few things because we are experienced.”
The defensive backfield, meanwhile, is another athletic group led by Heck. Playing opposite Heck is newcomer Aaron Bitter with Richardson and Schultz rotating at safety.
Speed is their ally, as the defensive backs fly up in support and cut off angles of opposing ball carriers. Should Bagby and Matzen return, the Wave’s secondary becomes one of the best and most athletic in the state.
“We think our defense will be as good or better than last year,” Heck said.