“Overall team speed is better. I think that we’re bigger and stronger than we were last year,” head coach Chris McDonald said of the Maricopa High School football team.
IF YOU GO
What: Maricopa High School Rams Football Season Opener
When: Aug. 18, 7 p.m.
Where: Ram Stadium, 45012 W. Honeycutt Ave.
The Rams start their season at home Friday at 7 p.m. against Willow Canyon.
The team has a new vibe after Maricopa’s first season in 5A Metro left them with a .500 record. The players talk a lot about chemistry, making it an important part of team-building with a mix of veterans, up-and-comers and new faces.
“Our chemistry for the team is really good this year,” junior center Jake Meyer said. “We’re all pretty much family-oriented.”
“Chemistry is like anything else, it’s got to be developed,” McDonald said. “We do a lot of team-bonding activities. I think the most important part is if the kids understand how it relates to having a better team, which in turn is going to give them a better experience and have a more successful season; if kids buy into that, that’s when it really starts to develop.”
The 2017 edition of the Rams is still not the biggest of 5A division teams, but they are quick. Two speedy running backs who made an impact on last year’s squad are returning. Cam Sanders and Kemo Akins are seniors and team captains.
In his own way, Sanders has become a virtual spokesman for the team, which is currently studying Willow Canyon.
“We’ve been preparing since the beginning of summer,” he said. “That was the only team we had our mind focused on. We take them a week at a time.”
The Rams scrimmaged at Notre Dame Prep on Friday. McDonald called it a “vanilla” outing, but it was a chance to get up to game speed.
“It wasn’t just JV. That’s another varsity team,” Sanders said. “When I got hit the first time, I was like, ‘Yeah, we’re ready to play. I like it. It feels good.’”
While Sanders led the team scoring last season with seven touchdowns, Akins was second in team rushing yards with 283.
Senior Taylor Belcher, 6-foot-4, 230-pound linebacker, was also chosen by the team as one of the three permanent captains. Coaches choose a fourth captain for each game.
“I feel pretty honored that my team put my name in their votes to name me captain this year and walk out to the coin-flip every game,” Belcher said.
Injury caused Maricopa to have rotating quarterbacks in 2016. This season, senior Alec Smith has played his way into the position. Smith moved to Maricopa from Illinois in the middle of his sophomore year, after the football season. Though he had played a little quarterback during spring ball, he wound up as a tight end his junior year.
This year during spring ball, he was asked if he wanted to play quarterback again.
“I said, ‘Yeah,’ and then it just happened,” Smith said. “I’ve been playing quarterback like my whole life, so I pretty much still had it.”
McDonald announced Smith as the Game 1 starter.
“It’s his job to lose,” McDonald said. “He’s been with us all off-season and done a great job picking up the offense, and he’s getting better as a leader. [Senior] Devin Parady is a kid that came on late, if you will, in summer and is a kid who’s really started to blossom in pushing Alec, which is only going to make Alec better.”
A newcomer drawing notice, and not just for his size, is senior Zion Saole. After playing on an overwhelming, undefeated freshman team in Anchorage, Alaska, Saole moved with his family to Maricopa last fall.
“I would have played, but then I would have had to sit out for more than half the season,” said Saole, who is a 6-foot-4 lineman weighing around 330 pounds.
“He’s worked his tail off,” coach McDonald said. “He was about 380 pounds when we first got him in January. He’s lost almost 50 pounds. It obviously takes dedication to do that.”
Saole is only 16 years old.
McDonald said he’s passionate about the game and a “high-character kid.”
“The first week of school I had two different teachers already communicate with me what a great role model, what a great leader he’s been in their class,” McDonald said. “So that really speaks volumes about what he’s about. He’s kind of an old soul. He understands the big picture of things.”
One thing McDonald learned in the scrimmage was the amount of “mental-mistakes” cleanup that may need to be done. The players know it, too.
“We need to work on a lot of improvements, particularly myself,” senior Edward Donaldson said. “I’m also looking to go to college, and I need some scouts to come look at me so I can make it out. We need to work together better as a team, so better communication and better teamwork.”
McDonald is also concerned about the health of the team, calling them “banged up.” And while he pined a bit for some “prototypical, old-school throwback, tough football players” from last year’s team, he said this year’s Rams are still pretty tough, and they have an edge.
“I think they have a chip on their shoulder. I think they understand what’s ahead of them,” McDonald said. “They want to accomplish something. They want to get over the hump. We’ve always been a game here and a game there short of making the playoffs.”
Junior wide receiver Jacob Cowing has his long-term goals set there.
“I’m looking forward to making it to the playoffs,” Cowing said. “I think with our team chemistry this year, we can make it happen.”
DATE TIME OPPONENT
Aug. 18 7 p.m. Willow Canyon
Aug. 25 7 p.m. @ Paradise Valley
Sept. 1 7 p.m. @ Desert View
Sept. 8 7 p.m. Centennial
Sept. 15 7 p.m. North Canyon [HOMECOMING]
Sept. 28 (Thu) 7 p.m. @ Ironwood*
Oct. 6 7 p.m. Apollo*
Oct. 13 7 p.m. @ Sunnyslope*
Oct. 20 7 p.m. @ Kellis*
Oct. 27 7 p.m. McClintock* [SENIOR NIGHT]