The Miners have been digging in all summer, hoping the hard work and heavy lifting they have put in during the off season will lead them to gridiron prosperity in the fall.
The Nevada Union football team is a mere five weeks away from their opening game against Placer, and head coach Dennis Houlihan said the team is shaping up nicely.
“It’s been a really good summer,” Houlihan said. “We got a strong group of seniors leading the way.”
The Miners were both small and young last season, but with a core group of returning players leading the charge, NU hopes to improve upon last year’s difficult season.
“The team is putting in the work in the weight room and as a whole we are bigger and stronger,” Houlihan said.
It’s still too early to tell how the Miners will fair in 2014, but here are a handful of players to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
Travis Owens, Senior, RB/DB
In 2013, Owens played in nine of the Miners 10 games as a junior and was one of NU’s few offensive threats. The shifty, speed back led the team in carries (91) and total yards with 925 (409 rushing, 218 receiving, 298 kick return). Owens was also second on the team with four touchdowns (one rushing, three receiving). Owens’ best game last season came against Roseville when he rushed for 182 yards and a touchdown, and also caught two balls for 111 yards and a touchdown.
“Travis has really matured as a young man and blossomed into a leader,” Houlihan said. “He’s put on weight, runs a 4.5 (second) 40 (yard dash). He’s definitely one of our go-to guys.”
Owens’ growth as a player and a leader also earned his teammates respect as he was voted to be a team captain by his fellow Miners.
Mo Nieves, Senior, RB
Despite playing in just six games last season due to a knee injury, Nieves led NU in rushing yards and touchdowns. The short in stature but powerful and lightning fast back rushed for 433 yards as a junior and scored five rushing touchdowns.
Nieves’ best game last season was against Del Oro, when he rushed for 137 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries. Nieves topped the century mark in two games last season, the other coming against Roseville.
“Mo is looking good,” Houlihan said. “He’s one of our go-to guys and he’s definitely our fastest guy.”
Josh Belendez, Senior, MLB
Houlihan once said that if he had 11 players like Josh Belendez he would expect to compete for the state title. That was last year, this year the brick wall of a linebacker is even stronger, faster and smarter, said Houlihan.
Belendez led NU in tackles as a junior with 81 (50 solo) and in tackles for a loss with 16. The powerful backer with plenty of pop also caused four fumbles, recovered another and tallied a sack.
“He’s so good at that spot and he’s gotten better,” Houlihan said.
Belendez will be the centerpiece of NU’s defense and a headache for opposing defensive coordinators in the upcoming season.
Justus Spillner, Junior, QB
After being thrown to the wolves as a sophomore quarterback, Spillner has shown great improvement from last year, said Houlihan.
“He’s throwing the ball well, and making better decisions,” said Houlihan.
Spillner also attended a Top Gun football camp in Ohio this summer, where he excelled under the guidance of some of the country’s top tier coaches.
Last season Spillner played in all 10 games and started for much of the second half of the season. As a sophomore he completed just 37.5 percent of his passes, and tallied 554 passing yards while throwing three touchdowns and four interceptions.
Enzo Arata, Senior, OL/DE
Helping to protect Spillner and clear the way for Nieves and Owens will be senior offensive lineman Arata.
“He’s steady, he’s aggressive and his body has grown,” said Houlihan. “He’s got this new found strength and he’s definitely moving bodies.”
Arata is a key cog in the Miners’ Wing-T system and will be integral to their success this season.
To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, call 530-477-4232 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.