Way back in August, when the prep football season was fresh and full of optimism, Nevada Union’s players and coaches talked of their aspirations for a Sac-Joaquin Section and State Bowl championship.
And why not? Coming into the season, the Miners had all the makings of a championship-caliber team. They had the Sierra Foothill League’s co-defensive MVP returning for his senior year, a quarterback returning from a stellar season as a junior, a dynamic wide receiver, a core of backers that had been varsity players since their sophomore year, a big-legged kicker and some highly touted transfers coming in.
In 2011, the Miners went 7-4 overall and 3-2 in the SFL, made the playoffs and had many of their core starters coming back.
So what went wrong?
What turned a team that looked to be poised for a deep playoff run into a sub-.500 team that was ousted in the first round of the playoffs for a second straight season?
It surely wasn’t the pass game, which led the SFL. Senior quarterback Kyle Cota was impressive in every game, always giving his team a fighting chance. The Cota-to-Ian Davis connection was a joy to watch all season as the two linked up 77 times for 1,305 yards and 11 touchdowns. Cota wasn’t just locked on Davis though, as he hit Austin Marks for four touchdowns this season, Hank Humphers for three, Jake Berger for a pair of TDs and Gareth Noxon once.
The NU run game often left something to be desired though, as it struggled to find a go-to guy all season. The Miners just didn’t have that game-breaking back that NU fans are used to seeing. On the season, the Miners averaged little more than 133 yards per game and never had a rush longer than 43 yards, which came in the last game of the season on a Hank Humphers run after the game had been decided.
Without a dominant run game to keep defenses honest, Cota was forced to throw into coverage schemes that had been planning for him specifically all week.
“I thought our running backs really worked hard this season,” NU head coach Dave Humphers said. “The fact that our starting running backs played both ways made it challenging for them. There aren’t many years where our starting backs also start on defense. I’m real proud of those kids for how hard they worked.”
Maybe, if the section hadn’t bounced Cole Hannum’s eligibility, the Miners’ run game would have excelled rather than sputtered.
Tanner Vallejo and Hank Humphers led the Miner ground game. Vallejo amassed 414 yards and eight touchdowns, and Hank Humphers accounted for 432 yards and four touchdowns. Both also started on defense.
Vallejo, a defensive captain, led the team with 129 tackles, and Hank Humphers accounted for 61 and was a ball hawk with two interceptions and three fumble recoveries.
The Miners started four juniors on the offensive line throughout the season, and to their credit, they stepped up and played well for the most part, as the Miners averaged more than 28 points per game. The good news is they will all hopefully be back next season.
The biggest road block obstructing the Miners from reaching their championship goals was a defense that was gashed on a regular basis.
Twice this season individual running backs on opposing teams racked up more than 250 yards, and on five separate occasions, the NU defense was exposed for more than 200 yards rushing.
The NU pass defense was no better early on in the season, getting shredded by pass-heavy offenses, such as Pleasant Grove, Chico and Rocklin. But the young secondary steadily improved as the season progressed and finished the season strong with its best performance of the year. NU intercepted Franklin four times and allowed a meager 27 yards through the air. It was the 454 on the ground that did the squad in.
The Miner secondary will return Jake Berger and Gareth Noxon next year, and both players have game-changing abilities. Noxon was an honorable mention this season when the All-SFL teams were announced. He also tied for the team lead in interceptions with two.
Penalties hurt the Miners all season, as they had more than 10 penalties several times this season, a problem that cost them touchdowns in five of their 11 games.
Despite falling short of their goals this year, there are plenty of positives to take from this past football season.
“It’s pretty simple for me,” Dave Humphers said. “I really enjoyed this year. Our players came to practice every day and worked hard all year. We had a great group of parents supporting us, and the players were enjoyable to coach. I wish we would have had a better win-loss record, but it was still great. We made the playoffs and at least gave ourselves a chance.”
Players like Eli Butcher, with the wings on his helmet completely chipped off from battling in the trenches, the tenacious Terry Graham on the defensive line, the gritty effort of Cota in the playoffs, competing on an injured leg, Vallejo’s eternal optimism and belief in his team, Joshua Last’s lasting impact on the team and the community, the overall team unity and brotherhood showed as Hannum and Owen Sparks battled the section’s ineligibility rulings, and the hundreds of fans who traveled each week to follow the Miners’ every down, as well as the heart and love shown by so many players on the NU team will be what this sports writer takes from this season.
To contact Sports Writer Walter Ford call (530) 477-4232 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org