By Jeff Edgington, Special to Independent Newsmedia
In the brief history of Willow Canyon High School the Wildcats football program has not found too much success on Friday nights.
But thanks to a stronger work ethic and more numbers than ever in the summer months there is reason for optimism in western Surprise.
Willow Canyon, which first fielded a varsity football team in 2005, has posted three winning seasons. All of those were 7-4 campaigns under Michael Hudnutt. They last tasted the postseason in 2011 — Hudnutt’s next to last team.
Coach Joe Martinez enters his fourth full season season with a 10-26 mark. Mr. Martinez was an assistant who took over when Mr. Hudnutt resigned after an 0-4 start in 2013.
It has been difficult for the Wildcats to finish in late game situations. Case in point — last season. Four of Willow Canyon’s seven losses were by 2 possessions or fewer.
“We were in some of those games. That’s what we need to correct moving forward. We have to get better in close games,” Mr. Martinez said.
It will take more than two kids. But a pair of juniors in Brendan “Bear” Haynes and Zack Enhelder can be building blocks to change the direction of the program quickly.
Mr. Enhelder received some notice from scouts in the spring, while Mr. Haynes remains under the radar. Mr. Enhelder is 6-4, 230 pounds and will split time between tight end and defensive line.
Mr. Haynes has taken the reins at quarterback is focused on his skill guys learning the offense and establishing timing right now. Against bigger competition that will pay dividends.
As a sophomore he got in the tail end of the 48-6 victory over Sierra Linda, backing up senior starter Dan Moran. Other than five career passes the Wildcats are raw at quarterback.
Mr. Haynes said the team still has not settled on a backup. Also on offense, the Wildcats will utilize senior running back Dom Cardoza, who led the team with 346 rushing yards last year.
Junior left tackle Matt McClure will help anchor a line seeking to keep Mr. Haynes upright. Mr. Haynes said he is confident this team is going to turn the corner.
“We’re putting in the work in the weight room. It’s not fun going 3-7. We could’ve easily took 1-2- even 3 of those contests. Past is the past and we can’t regret anything. We’ve participated in the Arizona State event and the Maricopa (7-on-7) field. Those were good tests for us. We fared pretty well going against Hamilton and other 6A schools in these 7s,” said Mr. Haynes.
Willow Canyon reached the quarterfinals at the Arizona Football Coaches Association 7-on-7 tourney June 16 in Maricopa, advancing to the quarterfinals before falling to host Maricopa. They team had its annual Spring Blue-Gray scrimmage on May 20.
The Wildcats are headed to Carlsbad, New Mexico for team building and camp. The Carlsbad “Camp of Champions” will go from July 10-13 and is unique, since many Arizona teams travel north or west to California for camp.
It will go a long way in seeing how well this team has improved. The team opens up on Friday, Aug. 18 at Maricopa. Due to the early start, the Wildcats will open up practice earlier than normal, Monday, July 24.
On the other side of the ball some holes need to be plugged. Senior defensive back Zeke Rangel’s return will help mesh a defense that allowed 29 points per game.
However, the Wildcats lost their three leading tacklers to graduation. Senior defensive end Austin Dylong and Mr. Enhelder will try to contribute to a turnaround. Mr. Engel would like to see his team get stronger.
“We need to continue to hit the weight room. We’re playing some bigger schools and as August gets here that will help us in the long run against the smaller schools.”
Getting over the .500 hurdle is the goal. As always so is defeating rival Valley Vista for the first time since 2010.
Ahead lays a highly difficult section which has two of the top teams in 5A state — Peoria powers Centennial and Liberty — In Willow’s immediate path. Shadow Ridge and Sierra Linda wrap up the Northwest Region, and the Wildcats will be looking for revenge against the Stallions in the other Surprise rivalry game.