FOOTBALL 2010: Back-to-back banners for Miners? | TheUnion.com

FOOTBALL 2010: Back-to-back banners for Miners?

Less than a year removed from a 13-1 campaign in which they claimed a Delta Valley Conference crown and the program’s fourth Sac-Joaquin Section championship, Nevada Union’s Miners are back at it again, digging into preseason practices with their sights set on bringing another championship banner back to Grass Valley.

Same as it ever was.

Except back-to-back banners this fall would be especially impressive, considering only three familiar faces will be back in their starting spots. Contending for championships in 2010 will take an extremely young and inexperienced group of Miners growing up in a hurry, as one of the team’s toughest schedules in recent memory will be kicked off Friday night at Hooper Stadium.

But it can be done.

The last time Nevada Union returned only a trio of starters from the previous season was in 2003. And those Miners matured in fine fashion, venturing into the varsity level for the first time and promptly posting a 10-0 regular season to claim the Metro Conference crown.

By season’s end, that group had grown to the point of writing their chapter of “Miner Magic,” with unforgettable double-pass play — from quarterback Jarad Van Matre to tight end Steven Davis, and back to Van Matre — that shocked the Grant Pacers 25-21, with 20 seconds remaining in another epic between the rivals.

Yet considering the stiff slate ahead, Nevada Union might do well to earn a playoff berth while potentially starting as many as 13 juniors and two sophomores.

“That’s young,” Humphers said. “That’s real young.”

Just two returning starters are back from an offensive unit that amassed 5,779 yards in the run to the 2009 section title. NU’s senior-dominated squad scored 79 touchdowns and averaged 42.5 points per game.

Talk about a tough act to follow.

At least there is some experience up front to the lead the way, with seniors Cody Long (6-3, 270) at left tackle and Mike Champagne (5-11, 270) on the right side. Left guard Harris Volheim (6-0, 225) also saw substantial action last fall. Senior Blake Smith (5-9, 155) is the starting right guard and junior Alec Sarner (6-2, 225) has earned the anchor spot at center.

“Right now, our offensive line is probably our biggest strength,” Humphers said. “Cody and Mike are our two returning starters and Harris played a lot last year, as he’s moving from tight end to offensive guard. And we’ve got a good battle going at right guard between Blake Smith and Taylor King.

“We’ve also got two terrific tight ends in Connor Fuller and Max Talbott. Teams are going to have to handle those two to stop our running game.”

That running game again offers a variety of options, with speedy seniors Devyn Grimes and Jake Tilly starting at halfback. Connor Keith, a junior, will start at fullback, while junior Gabe Humphers and sophomore Tanner Vallejo are also fighting for time in the backfield.

Taking the snaps with be junior Josiah Paye, a 5-9, 170-pound junior who started at both the junior varsity team and freshmen levels the previous two seasons. The passing game just might be a bit of a birthright for Paye, whose half-brother John, played quarterback at Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers.

He’s charged with task of following one of the top quarterbacks in NU history, as three-year starter Broughan Jantz threw for 2,024 passing yards and 23 touchdowns against three interceptions as a senior.

“Josiah is a terrific young man and he’s very competitive,” Humphers said. “He had a great spring and summer. He’s a talented guy who’s very intelligent – a straight “A” student – who is a real student of the game and who’s very coachable.

“I’m very confident in his ability to help us succeed.”

He’ll have plenty of talented, if inexperienced, targets to hit. Along with the Fuller and Talbott at tight end, and underneath routes run out of the backfield, wideouts Brock Kraus and Jake Hofheinz offer Paye plenty of options in the passing game.

Kraus, a senior who saw action at safety and served as backup quarterback to Jantz last fall, is also one of NU’s top track athletes and brings sprinter speed to the split end position.

“We work hard at putting together a balanced attack, where we’re throwing the ball as well as we’re running it,” Humphers said. “As our team develops, I think we’ll be an effective offensive team, and we’ll be an exciting offensive team, but right now our greatest level of experience is on our offensive line.”

Only one Miner is back from a unit that grew increasingly more stingy by season’s end, highlighted by 20-2 domination of Monterey Trail in a rain-soaked section title game that essentially brought the two teams toe to toe in a slugfest.

But in each level of the defense, at least one experienced hand returns to lead the way.

Most notably, that’s senior outside linebacker Boddi Winegar (6-2, 200), who returns to the lineup to lead an athletic linebacking corps that brings big-time speed if little experience. Junior Gabe Humphers, who saw spot play behind a veteran crew that included Colorado State recruit Eric Niederberger in ’09, has won the weakside linebacker spot inside. Two sophomores are slotted to start on the other side, with Vallejo at strongside inside backer and Hank Humphers on the outside.

Up front, NU lost a deep and talented class that featured University of Arizona defensive end Dan Pettinato. Long offers some experience in lining up at right end, while Talbott (6-4 230) takes over on the left side. In the middle, Adriel Harding, a 5-6, 150-pound senior whose nickname “Dart” speaks of his quickness, will play the nose, while Jan Casarez (6-1, 215) takes hold of the tackle spot.

NU’s secondary has no returning starters, but both Kraus and senior cornerback Josh Cena were often on the field with the game one the line. In fact, Cena came up with the play that clinched the Miners’ spot in the section title game. With Pleasant Grove driving deep to the Nevada Union 14-yard line late in the section semifinal, Cena recovered a fumble caused by Niederberger to seal the deal in a 31-28 win.

Cena, a 5-6, 155-pounder who had three interceptions on one night last fall against Franklin (Stockton) quarterback Paul Ware, will line up at left corner. Juniors Matt Wittler and Tyler Houlihan, both up from the JV team, will start at right corner and safety, respectively. Kraus and Grimes also give NU both depth and experience in the secondary as reserves.

Scanning the season slate, it’s evident that Nevada Union is about to play one of its toughest schedules in recent memory.

NU’s former league, the Delta Valley Conference, wasn’t exactly full of cupcakes. Prior to last fall’s 5-0 run to the league – and section – title, the Miners had managed a 9-6 mark in three previous DVC campaigns. But there’s no question that Sierra Foothill League, considered by many to be the best conference in all of the Sac-Joaquin Section, is a serious step up.

“It may be the toughest league in the state,” Humphers said. “Or maybe, at least, the toughest in an area a lot broader than the section.”

On Oct. 7, the Miners welcome former Metro Conference rival Granite Bay, which has won 29 games over the past three seasons, including the 2007 Division II section championship.

One week later, Nevada Union travels to Loomis for a matchup with Del Oro, a program that has produced at least 10 wins in three of the past four seasons, including last year’s 11-3 run that ended as the Division II section runner-up.

Perhaps the tallest test looms in the final week of the regular season, when the Miners close out its first SFL season by playing the defending league and Division II section champion Thunder. Led by quarterback Jimmy Laughrea, a Boise State recruit, the Thunder was the only team to send NU’s 2010 section championship team to the loss column last season.

As tough as the SFL stretch seems, the Miners won’t have to wait until the league season to see where they stack up against some top-notch teams. Along with Friday night’s opener against McQueen, a seven-time Nevada state champion, the Miners will face stiff competition against three other nonleague foes who have some scores to settle when the Miners come calling.

Ponderosa, which fell to the Miners 42-7 last fall, will be looking for some payback when NU heads to Shingle Springs in week two. Week three’s trip to Monterey Trail serves as a rematch of last year’s section championship game, won 20-2 by the Miners in a downpour at University of the Pacific.

Elk Grove, which hosts NU in the final nonleague matchup on Sept. 24, is hoping to return to its place among Sacramento’s perennial powerhouses after going 10-11 the past two seasons.

Contact Sports Editor Brian Hamilton via e-mail at bhamilton@theunion.com or by phone at 477-4240.