By Adam Wolfe
The Maricopa High School Rams football team has dealt with tragedy, extreme heat and sporadic rain in the week leading up to their first game, but despite all the obstacles, head coach Chris McDonald feels his team will show up focused and determined against the Owls of Agua Fria High School (Avondale).
The largest threat the Owls present to the Rams is their size advantage.
“They’re bigger than we are up front, so that’ll be the first and foremost threat,” McDonald said. “We’re going to try to use our speed. I think we have more team speed, so hopefully we can counteract their power with our speed. Then we’ll be able to infiltrate gaps by being quicker.”
Similar to last year’s Maricopa team, the Owls were an offensively potent team that struggled on defense. Maricopa will look to exploit the gaps in the defense, but at the same time, be aware of an improved unit that features ball-hawking senior safety Jaylon Green.
“No. 3 (Green) is their best all-around football player,” McDonald said. “He’s their free safety and he’s one of their slot receivers. He’s arguably the best athlete on the field. He’s a threat to take it to the house any time he touches the ball.”
In the 2014 season, Green led Agua Fria in receiving yards on offense and interceptions on defense. He also returns kicks and had nearly 1,000 all-purpose yards last year.
Another threat to the Rams defense is senior running back Chris Cofield. Last year, Cofield finished with a team-high seven rushing touchdowns and over 500 yards. According to McDonald, he is “fast and physical” and the defense will need to stop him from reaching the open field.
On the Rams side of the football, they’ll look to their explosive offense led by seniors Aaron Owens and Isaiah Pedro to set the tempo for the game. The Rams return four starters on the offensive line from the 2014 season, and if the scrimmage against Notre Dame Prep is any indication, they should have no problem opening holes for running backs to get through.
However, their receiving core featuring team co-captain Johnny Johnson Jr. and junior David Owens will need to step up their aggression for Maricopa to reach their full potential.
“I thought we were more physical (in the scrimmage) than [Notre Dame Prep] was, which was good to see,” McDonald said. “I just think our experience should be a strength this year. We have a core group of seniors that are returning and a lot of two-way players that know what to expect.”
The experience will be largely beneficial on offense. On defense, though, there are still some question marks. The team showed great defensive speed and aggression in the scrimmage last week, but once the first string players came off the field, the team was susceptible to big plays.
If they show up with the same aggression as they did in the scrimmage, the defense should be able to use their speed to overcome the size and power of the Agua Fria front line.
The last obstacle the Rams defense, and team as a whole, will have to cope with is the loss of senior linebacker Nate Ford. The morning after last week’s scrimmage, Ford passed away in a traffic accident. The aftermath has been felt by the team and community alike.
Last Friday’s practice was canceled after the accident, and the team has been honoring Ford each day at practice by bringing out his helmet, pads and practice jersey. So far, the tragedy has been fueling the team. At practice, they play for purpose. Each sprint and each play is executed for their friend who can no longer be with them. The team has handled the situation with strength and class, said Coach McDonald, who believes that drive will carry through Friday night as well.
“I told the kids after practice today that I was proud of them so far with how they’ve gone about their business,” McDonald said. “There’s no manual on how to handle something like this. So we’ve had a short week due to the circumstances. We got rained out Tuesday, so we haven’t had a lot of practices, but the tempo was real good in the practices we have had, and these players have had a spark.”
The Rams have decided to make Nate Ford the fourth team captain for Friday’s game. His number will be represented at the coin toss with the captains, and his jersey and equipment will be given a spot on the bench with his teammates.
There have been plenty of events throughout the week to provide excuses for the Rams, but the players haven’t taken them. They appear focused and determined to make a statement Friday.