Football: Coleville caps dream season with first playoff berth in 15 years
Tucked away just off Highway 395 South, players clad in blue jerseys and yellow practice pants trickle out on to the football field at Coleville High School.
First one, then two, quickly to eight, stopping at 10 and then ballooning to 22.
It stops there.
Coleville football coach Will Sandy surveys the team with a smile.
“Twenty-two kids dressed out,” Sandy said. “That’s actually a big team for us.”
They warm up for practice on Coleville’s 80- by 40-yard field, standard for eight-man ball, just like any other week, except for one thing.
The Wolves are hosting Wells in the first round of the Northern 1A playoffs Saturday at 1 p.m.
“I didn’t even realize it at first, but we have a couple of freshmen that weren’t even born yet the last time we made the playoffs,” Sandy said with a laugh. “That kind of blew me away. I started feeling a little old.”
It’s been a 15-year drought for Coleville and for Sandy, who started coaching the Wolves in 1990.
“We went to the playoffs in ’91 and ’92 and then I guess I got stupid,” he said. “The school got smaller. We were in the 90s for our enrollment and then suddenly we were in the 70s.
“The other schools have around 140 students. It got tough to come up with as many quality athletes, because the other schools had twice as many kids to choose from.
“We were in such bad shape for a while there that we had to go independent for a few years just to keep the program alive. We had only 12 guys out for football and we were just getting demolished.
“We had to pick and choose.”
Even now, with 22 players, Coleville is taking the field every week with 63 percent of its male student population.
“We’re so lucky to have great kids this year,” Sandy said. “There’s two things you worry about as a coach at a small school every year ” injuries and grades.
“You have to have everyone healthy and you have to have everyone eligible.
Grades can just wipe you out in a heartbeat. One guy can be starting at three different positions for you.
“They have to be great in the classroom to be successful on the field. Our team GPA this year is the best it’s been in a long time. It’s nice to look at the grades every week and see A’s and B’s.”
On the field, though, the Wolves came up with something pretty special this year.
They ran off nine consecutive victories to qualify for playoffs and win the Western 1A league title after going 4-5 last season.
“We had a lot of younger kids back, so we thought we had a chance to make the playoffs, or at least be competitive in every game,” Sandy said. “But I don’t think any of us ever thought we’d run the table. It’s really been a remarkable year.”
The big difference this year? A passing game.
Quarterback Jason Peters, a 6-1, 190-pound sophomore, followed up a solid freshman year and broke the school records in passing yards in a season and passing touchdowns.
He threw for 1,777 yards and 34 touchdowns, completing 103 passes along the way.
“Jason just does such a great job passing the ball,” Sandy said. “He’s very mature, very smart. He’s very bright out there. He makes good decisions with the ball.
“We can send a play in and it can be all screwed up and he can figure out what the kid is trying to tell him and run the right play. It’s a luxury to have him out there.”
Ask Peters, and he’s quick to credit the large offensive line of Sean Sherlock, Jay Clark, Erik Buehrle and Marco Barajas and his receivers.
“The line just put in a lot of work in the offseason and I’ve had the top three receivers in the whole league,” Peters said. “They made it really easy on me. The line gives me all the time in the world to throw and the receivers have been catching everything.”
Coleville traditionally runs the single-wing with a tailback behind center and fullback to the side to free up sweeps and power runs, but Peters’ arrival opened up the playbook considerably.
“We started using more of a spread and using Jason under center,” Sandy said. “We drop him back in shotgun and he actually does a lot of his running from that formation.
“Now we do a lot of running on draws, or if things break down, he takes off. We still jump into the single-wing once in a while.”
Peters also led the team in rushing this year with 802 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Will Goode ran for 174 yards and three touchdowns from the fullback position to bolster to Wolves’ running game.
Coleville’s three speedy receivers, senior Trevor Anderson (40 catches, 706 yards, 18 touchdowns), Dylan Hudson (22 catches, 408 yards, 7 touchdowns) and freshman Emmi Sandoval, also helped open things up.
Sandoval, for example, has had only eight catches this season, but five have gone for touchdowns and he has an average per catch of over 30 yards.
Anderson, a four-year player for the Wolves, has enjoyed the shift in offensive strategy.
“We just wanted to work hard during the offseason so that we could come in and have a good season,” Anderson said. “Last year we did a lot of running because the line was still fairly young. Our main offense was the wing, so it was pretty much only short passes here and there. It’s been fun opening it up. We’re throwing it twice as much.
“We worked on that a lot and hit the weights pretty hard. We started executing the plays and it’s paying off.”
It’s been a big change for Sandy as a coach as well.
“I’m a running coach,” he said. “This is the first I’ve been coaching that I haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher. It’s been a lot of fun this year to experiment with some things we weren’t really able to do in the past. All this throwing stuff has been fun for the kids.”
Coleville has outscored its opponents 507-190 in nine games. The Wolves have put more than 50 points on the board in seven games and topped 60 points four times.
That’s not to say, though, that the defense hasn’t played a big part in the dream season. Everyone on the roster plays both ways, so the faces don’t change much when possession does.
Peters and Barajas shift to outside linebacker, Sherlock slides in a middle linebacker, Hudson and Anderson play cornerback while Buerhle and Carlos Hernandez split time at nose guard.
Goode and Kyle Tidwell play defensive end to round out the starting eight on defense.
Anderson had 20 solo tackles, 55 assists, two sacks and two interceptions this year.
“We get after it defensively,” Anderson said. “The coaches get us in shape, they get us prepared. We run a lot and we have good conditioning.”
Tidwell led the team with four sacks, along with 14 solo tackles and 27 assists.
It’s a new experience for the players that have been with the program for a couple of years.
“This is weird,” senior lineman Sean Sherlock, who had a team-leading 21 solo tackles and 70 assists this season, said. “I don’t know what winning feels like, you know? It’s completely new for all of us.
“An undefeated season wasn’t even a dream. Last year we just got beat up and down. The idea of playing Eureka and actually winning wasn’t something we could even think of.
“We knew we had a good team coming into the year, but we didn’t know it was playoff material. We just knew we had some speed and talent and some size on the line.”
Sandy said he couldn’t be happier for his four seniors.
“The young guys just think this is the way it ought to be, because they don’t have a clue what the older guys have been through” he said. “I’m so happy for the seniors. They haven’t had this kind of opportunity before.
“People around here are just excited for them. One of the stores over in Walker has all the kids’ names painted on a window outside. It’s kind of a big deal, what the kids have done this season.”
The Wolves’ roster is rounded out by a promising group of returners for next season including freshman Tyler Sparks, junior Colton Ward, freshman Shane Parker, freshman Tyler Summers, sophomore John Hall, sophomore Steven Koelling, freshman Daniel Iniguez, sophomore Terrance Garcia, sophomore Patrick Homa, freshman Kambel Kenaston and sophomore Nik Sherlock.
At a school the size of Coleville, it’s more or less expected that you play multiple sports.
“Everyone pretty much has to play all three sports, football, basketball and baseball,” Sandy said. “They talk each other into playing. They say things like, ‘If you come out for football so we can have a good team, I’ll come out for baseball to help you out.’ They all have their favorite sports, but pretty much everyone does something every season.”
A prime example, Sandy said, is Barajas who played basketball for the majority of his high school career.
“He’s having a heck of a year on the line for us,” Sandy said.
Coleville has to deal with a delicate juggling act every season of building on what the older kids have already accomplished and introducing the younger players to the game.
“They come in here and we basically have to act like a junior varsity program, because we have to teach the skills and the fundamentals,” Sandy said.
With no contact feeder program, the majority of the incoming players’ experience comes from a healthy flag football program at Antelope Valley Elementary School.
“Our principal, Jason Reid, runs our middle school flag football program,” Peters said. “He runs some pretty complicated plays and kind of gets us ready for high school.”
Sandy said it’s not that big of a jump in concept.
“It’s funny, because a lot of these kids come in from Bridgeport, so they were arch-rivals in middle school,” Sandy said. “A lot of them have gone to school all the way through with each other. One of our seniors, Carlos Hernandez, was born here.
“They know each other pretty well by the time we get them out on the field.”
Sandy said he doesn’t expect much of a change preparing for this week’s playoff game.
“There might be some nerves, but in a lot of ways, people didn’t really expect us to be here,” he said. “We might as well enjoy it and have fun. Who knows? Maybe we’ll win a game or two.”
Having the home-field advantage is a big key for the players.
“We are glad to be at home this week,” Peters said. “We know our field, we’ll have our crowd. We don’t have to travel and sleep on a gym floor.”
Seeing a perennial playoff team like Wells on the other side of the ball, however, will be a big change.
“Teams like that, Wells, or Carlin, those are teams you kind of think of in your head up there with the professionals or something,” Sherlock said. “It’s amazing to think about actually playing them. It’s an exciting time.”
Sandy said he’s just happy his team has a chance to play in the playoffs.
“Wells is in there every year, so they have an advantage in that respect,” Sandy said. “But that brings a lot of pressure on them because they are supposed to be there.
“If we win on Saturday, great. If not, it’s not the end of the world. The kids put themselves in a situation where they at least have a chance.
“They’ve made a bunch of great memories, worked hard and had some fun along the way.”