Cactus Shadows Football
Last fall the Cactus Shadows High football team took a bus ride up north to take on Prescott High. The two teams put on an offensive show that may never again be matched in Arizona high school football. The final score was 63-49, eyebrow-raising enough but not entirely extraordinary. What made this game historic was the way both teams got there. For starters, Bryce Kinsler, a senior starting his third season for Cactus Shadows, heaved the ball downfield 60 times, completing 37 passes for a state record 639 yards. He did have two interceptions, but, hey, when you throw the ball five dozen times, a few are bound to end up in enemy hands. Oh, and Kinsler passed for six touchdowns.
The funny thing is: Cactus Shadows lost the game. Prescott scored nine touchdowns, even though home team quarterback Nick Rock tossed the ball only eight times, with five completions. Rock didn’t need to throw the ball, as he simply handed the ball 30 times to Brady Mengarelli. The running back took off for a ridiculous 419 yards. The kid was clearly good, as he rushed for more than 300 yards in two other games last year, topping 200 yards a total of five times out of 11 games. But still, 419 yards?
“Our defense was pretty bad, last year,” Cactus Shadows coach Greg Davis said, with a touch of a groan. “And has been for a couple years.” Davis returns for his third year of coaching the Falcons, following two 3-7 seasons. He will try to bring back the magic of the 15-0 state championship season of 2006, though he would surely settle for the 11-1 finish in 2009.
The last two seasons, Davis pretty much gave the keys to the family car to Kinsler, who responded by throwing the ball around with pinpoint accuracy en route to setting the state record for career passing yardage. Number 12 will not be back at Cactus Shadows this year, as he has graduated and enrolled at Arizona State University. While the great high school quarterback is gone for sure, Davis hopes that the horrid defense also will not return. The coach feels that defensive woes were a combination of not having a defensive coordinator and simply not enough kids on the team.
Last year, the football team had only 25 players. That’s 11 starters and 14 backups. Davis relied on the starters to play both ways, and that’s what wore down the defense, he says. “Most of the teams we played against dressed at least 50,” Davis noted. This season, it looks like Davis will hit that magic number, with 50 kids trying out for the varsity team – exactly double last year’s turnout.
“We’re starting spring ball with the platoon system, 25 on offense, 25 on defense,” said Davis, a 1995 graduate of Scottsdale Christian. “For the last few years, I’ve wanted the kids to only play on one side of the ball. This is the first year we’ve had the numbers to try that.” In addition to keeping the best players from wearing out, Davis said it simply gives him the chance to get more kids in the game, as well as give them intensive coaching. “The main reason I wanted to go platoon from the get-go is it’s more opportunity to get kids out, and the more lives you can affect and help them become men of character. The ultimate goal is to get as many kids in program and affect those kids.”
Helping him make a positive impact will be his new defensive coordinator, Darin Robidoux, a coach at Colorado Mesa University for 17 years. “His knowledge already has been extremely impressive,” Davis said, with summer practice yet to begin. “The kids are excited, and I think we’re going to be a lot better on the defensive side.”
Returning players on defense include Nathan Brockman, who had 81 tackles (including 59 solos) as a junior last year, leading the team; Tanner Buchert, who had 33 tackles; and Emeka Esemonu, who had three interceptions last year, his junior season.
On offense, don’t expect the pass-crazy attack of the last three years. Davis wants to go “ground and pound,” relying on the big kids to knock back the line of scrimmage. “I definitely think this team is as strong as the offensive line,” the coach said. “We’ve got a good group of offensive linemen, and we’re looking for them to lead us.” Senior Brad Souva, a 6-foot-1, 265-pounder, will likely anchor the line at center, though he may play guard. Fellow senior and three-year starter Nate Covert, at 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, will like up next to Souva.
The running game will feature Joe Kuhlmann, compact at 5-8, 185 pounds. Last year, he rushed 27 times for 63 yards and caught 16 passes for 226 yards. “Joe is one of our featured players, and we’re depending on him to step up as a senior and get some positive yardage,” Davis said. “He played slot receiver for us last year, and was a big part of our passing game. With the more downhill running game, he’s definitely excited about it. He’s done a real good job of getting in the weight room and getting stronger and faster.”
At quarterback, junior Payton Ringwald and sophomore Mike Maloney are battling for the starting job.
And as for the Arizona single game and career passing yardage record holder? Bryce Kinsler has retired from football. “Bryce told me from get go he had no desire to play college football,” his high school coach recalled. “He always wanted to go to ASU and just be a student, take in the college atmosphere. But he’s training youth quarterbacks around Cave Creek.”
Without Kinsler, the Cactus Shadows Falcons will try to find a new identity this month. After two months of conditioning and seven-on-seven “passing league” competition, practice in pads begins August 5, followed by the season opener on August 30, a home game against Glendale’s Kellis High.
Davis hopes the 2013 team will live up to “The Falcon Creed”: “Live every day like it’s your last. Play every down like it’s your last. Demonstrate unmatched character, discipline, toughness and academic excellence every day.”