SEASON PREVIEW: Optimistic Miners gear up for start of 2018 season | TheUnion.com

SEASON PREVIEW: Optimistic Miners gear up for start of 2018 season

With a new man in charge, a new league to call home and a new energy permeating the program, the Nevada Union Miners football team is optimistic about its prospects in 2018.

"I think we can make it to the playoffs," Nevada Union running back and nose tackle Hayden Lee said. "We have a really good team and we're way more motivated than last year, and more tight knit."

Senior tight end and safety Cameron Dallago said the new energy around the program is obvious and engaging.

"The vibe has changed a lot," he said. "We're a lot happier, our practices are great and physical and energetic. I feel like we have that momentum on our side."

Much of that optimism and energy has been generated by new head coach Brad Sparks, who took over a program that hasn't made the playoffs since 2012.

"I want these kids to play with passion, heart and desire," Sparks said. "Just have that never give up, never quit attitude. That's what I expect and I know they will do it. Does it guarantee a win? No. But I'll tell you what, we're going to be quite a bit different than we've been."

Recommended Stories For You

MINERS DIG SPARKS' LEADERSHIP

"It's been a blast," said senior running back Dawson Fay of playing for Sparks. "I love Sparks. I've had a blast with him this summer. How he runs things are different, but I'm loving it, having a ball with it."

Lee added, "It's like we're an entirely new program because of Sparky, everyone looks up to him and everyone is excited he's the head coach. He treats us like we're all part of his family. He does a really good job of motivating us."

Sparks brings more that two decades of coaching experience to the position. He spent 17 years coaching various levels at Marysville High School, including four years as the head varsity coach. He has also held multiple positions with the Nevada Union program dating back to 2012. He is the 11th varsity head coach in Nevada Union football history and the third since 1991.

For Sparks, his objective is to make a difference in his player's lives and win games in the process.

"This school has gone through enough loss and being able to be positive and bring positivity has been my favorite part so far," he said.

BEVY OF BACKS

Nevada Union has had no shortage of elite running backs in the school's history, and this year is no different. The Miners return an all-league first teamer in Fay, who is coming off a strong junior season in which he led the Sierra Foothill League in rushing (1,173 yards).

"I have very high expectations for my team and myself, especially for myself," said Fay who is entering his third year as a varsity starter.

Joining Fay in the backfield is Lee, a 5-foot, 9-inch, 185-pound back who didn't get a lot of carries last season, but has impressed coaches in practice.

"Hayden Lee could start for anyone in our league and probably Northern California," said Sparks.

Sophomore Jaxon Horne will also be featured out of the backfield this season. Sparks said he expects good things from the 6-foot, 180-pound Horne.

"He will be in the paper for years to come, and I imagine break a lot of records," Sparks said. "He's a phenomenal athlete."

Nevada Union also has skilled backs in Isreal Gonzales and Dereck Lopez.

"In 25 years of coaching high school football, I don't think I've ever had this much talent in the backfield," said Sparks.

THROUGH THE AIR

Nevada Union will have a new face under center this season as senior Parker Heilaman takes over the starting quarterback role.

Heilaman played mostly on defense last season and has yet to attempt a pass in a varsity game, but has shown he is ready for the task with strong showings during summer practices and 7-on-7 matchups.

"Parker has really developed," said Sparks. "He's doing a really good job."

Heilaman will have outside targets in junior receiver A.J. Meyer and senior receiver Dylan McGilvary.

"They are weapons," Sparks said of Meyer and McGilvary. "They are athletes and they work really hard. They are the typical Nevada Union football players. They just overachieve at everything."

Holding down the tight end position is Dallago, who said he has a great rapport with Heilaman.

"That's always been a pretty tight bond," Dallago said. "It's what you would want from a quarterback and skill position player."

IN THE TRENCHES

Protecting Heilaman and opening holes for NU's ball carriers is a relatively inexperienced but hungry group of offensive lineman.

Anchoring the line is senior center John Low (5-10, 285 pounds). A pair of juniors hold down the guard positions in Matthew Dal Bon (6-1, 235 pounds) and Sammy Slay (5-9, 170-pounds). Bookending the offensive line is tackles Dylan Hart (6-9, 370 pounds) and Christian Espinoza (6-1, 220 pounds).

GETTING DEFENSIVE

The Miners have installed new defensive coordinator Jim Rubiales' 5-2-4 defense and are hoping it puts some more pressure on opponents.

"Jim brought in his own flavor with it, and what I love about it is how physical it is," said Sparks of the new defensive scheme. "We are bringing five people no matter what and we're playing a lot of man and a little bit of zone. I think we're going to cause some problems for people."

Nevada Union struggled to get to the quarterback a season ago, notching just five sacks on the season, but that wasn't the only area the defense faltered. The Miners gave up 34.1 points per game last season, and allowed more than 40 points in a game five times.

Nevada Union's defensive line will feature Lee, Dal Bon, Espinoza, Carlos Reyna, Liam Ferguson and Taylor Martines.

At the linebacker position Duke Morales steps into the middle linebacker position, taking over for 3-year varsity starter Justin Houlihan who graduated.

"He's a hard nose kid who kind of runs through everything and has this passion for football," Sparks said of Morales. "He's going 100 mph all the time."

Fay will also see lots of reps at linebacker.

In the secondary, Horne and Dallago will hold down the safety positions, while Meyer, McGilvary and Lopez will be tasked with cornerback duties.

PLAYING FOR TYLER AND JUSTIN

The Miners enter the season in the wake of a tragedy that took the lives of two of their teammates. Tyler Nielson and Justin Gardner died after being involved in an auto accident with an alleged drunk driver in March. The Miners are using that tragedy as a motivator this season.

"It's a huge motivation," said Fay, who survived the accident and will wear Nielson's No. 5 jersey this season. "It has made me super grateful to be able to play this sport. I come out here every day, every practice grateful I can still play, because I know those two up there would love to be playing right now."

Lee will be wearing Gardner's No. 10 number to honor his friend and teammate.

"It's motivation for me and for everybody on the team," Lee said.

Dal Bon added, "We're playing for them. Whenever something hard comes up we think of them and push ourselves harder. It's really been a motivation for us this summer and we can't wait to play for them."

NEW NEIGHBORS

The Miners have left the Sierra Foothill League and now take up residency in the newly formed Foothill Valley League where they will face league foes closer to their own enrollment. Nevada Union is joined by Lincoln, Oakmont, Placer, Ponderosa and Rio Linda. The Miners kickoff their league slate at Placer Sept. 28. The Hillmen won the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV title and came up just short of winning a state championship a season ago.

KICKING OFF THE SEASON

Nevada Union opens the 2018 season on the road, traveling to Yuba City to face the Honkers. The last time the Miners and Honkers faced off was in 2005. NU won that game, 35-21. This year's game is scheduled to get started at 7:15 p.m., Friday.

To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, call 530-477-4232 or email wford@theunion.com.

AT A GLANCE

Team: Nevada Union Miners

Head coach: Brad Sparks

League: Foothill Valley League

FVL teams: Nevada Union Miners, Lincoln Zebras, Oakmont Vikings, Placer Hillmen, Ponderosa Bruins, Rio Linda Knights

2017 record: 2-8, 0-6 (SFL)

Top returning rusher: Dawson Fay – 1,173 yards, 11 TDs

Top returning passer: Dawson Fay — 1-for-2, 10 yards, TD, INT

Top returning receiver: Isreal Gonzales – 4 catches, 102 yards, 2 TDs

Top returning tackler: Cameron Dallago – 29 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3 sacks

Key returners: Dawson Fay (RB, LB), Hayden Lee (RB, NT, LB), Parker Heilaman (QB, CB), Cameron Dallago (TE, S), Duke Morales (LB), Jaxon Horne (RB, S), AJ Meyer (WR, CB), Matthew Dal Bon (OL, DL), Dylan Hart (OL, DL).

Coaching staff: Brad Sparks (head coach), Jim Rubiales (Def. Coordinator), Chad Mason (QB coach), Ernie Flores (RB coach), Jason Horne (WR/CB Coach), Jon Peek (Kicking Coach), Tyler Droivold (Def. line), Jamie Wise (Trainer).

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.