|8/21/2013 6:02:00 AM |
2013 FALL SPORTS PREVIEW
Time is right for Bagdad, which may just be the team to beat
The Bagdad Sultans have a lot going their way in 2013: team numbers, momentum from last fall, and new top-dog potential in a revamped AIA Division 6.
Many football eyes are on the Sultans to follow up on one of the most successful seasons in program history by challenging for elite status when the 2013 season kicks off Aug. 31 against Joseph City up in Flagstaff.
Bagdad made a large footprint in 8-man football last fall.
The Sultans reached the state semifinals after clinching one of the biggest Bagdad wins ever when they knocked off perennial power, and 2-seeded, Heber Mogollon in a 25-24 thrilling finish. Although they would lose in the Final Four to Pima, the Division 6 football world will get another dose of Bagdad's strength this fall.
The team will weather losing graduated quarterback Kendall Jeans by bringing back impact players Kody Low (senior tight end, defensive end), Casey Jeans (junior running back, linebacker), and James Loveall (senior wideout, defensive back).
Also, all of the Sultans' starting linemen are back.
Head coach Dalton Mills, now in his second year and a former Sultans player himself (Class of '91), had just 20 kids in the program the year before he took over, sometimes not even enough to run a scout team. He now heads into this fall with 43 players cleared for football - from a school of only 130-some students.
And don't look for the team to get any motivation from last year's stinging semifinals loss to Pima. That's ancient history.
"We don't talk about it a ton, except for the conditioning part of it. We talk about that quite a bit," Mills said Tuesday. "We talk about how people didn't expect us to be there. From what I understand, it seems that a lot of people are talking about us now."
And with good reason.
Last year's Division 6 state champion, Glendale Joy Christian, and Division 6 No. 1 seed, Scottsdale Prep, have bolted for Division 5 in 2013. The new alignment has left Bagdad as one of the top contenders this fall. And with so much team depth, perhaps the contender.
The Sultans competed in a summer passing league at Mogollon with other 8-man squads, and finished 8-0. And the Arizona Republic in its Division 6 analysis lists Bagdad as the division's dark horse.
Meanwhile, work focuses on game-planning and conditioning back in Bagdad.
"They've all made a real commitment to the weight room. This is the first year we've had a consistent year-round program," said Mills, who developed a weight program similar to the one when he was on staff at Deer Valley and worked with the strength coach at Arizona State University.
"At first I think (the players) thought 'Oh that's impossible,' but they've made huge strides. I think we're stronger than we've ever been."
Maybe the Sultans' strongest player will be a converted guard who will also be taking handoffs in the backfield. Justin Pacheco, who lifts a combo weight (power, clean, squat and bench) of 960 pounds, will line up at fullback on offense, while patrolling middle linebacker and spotting at nose guard on defense.
"He's picked up some foot speed. He's always been a fullback-type kid," Mills said of Pacheco, ran an option 60 yards for a touchdown in last week's Blue-White scrimmage in Bagdad. "He's always wanted to be a running back. We used to always joke with him and say, 'You're going to have your hand in the dirt.'"
Taking over for Kendall Jeans under center will be likely quarterback starter Tony Jauregui. "He's shown better mobility than I thought," Mills said. "He's a good decision maker."
The Sultans are riding a run of seven straight years of advancing to the 8-man playoffs, and are looking for their first berth in a state championship game since 2000. Word has spread around the tiny campus some 50 miles west of Prescott that this burgeoning football program is the real deal.
"They just want to be a part of it," Mills added. "There were some kids last year that came out that were seniors and they had a really good experience. So we try to give everyone an opportunity and try to make them feel a part of something."