PREP FOOTBALL: Nevada Union Miners confident as they dig into 2017 season (Video)
NEVADA UNION MINERS
Head coach: Dennis Houlihan
2016 record:2-8 overall, 0-6 Sierra Foothill League (seventh)
Last league title: 2009
Last Sac-Joaquin Section championship: 2009
Game 1: at Antelope, 7 p.m., today
Game 2: vs. Placer, 7 p.m., Sept. 1
Game 3: vs. Lincoln, 7 p.m., Sept. 8
Game 4: at Napa, 7 p.m., Sept. 15
Game 5: at Rocklin, 7:30 p.m., Sept. 22*
Game 6: at Del Oro, 7:30 p.m., Sept. 29*
Game 7: vs. Woodcreek, 7:30 p.m., Oct. 6*
Game 8: at Folsom, 7:30 p.m., Oct. 13*
Game 9: vs. Granite Bay, 7:30 p.m., Oct. 20*
Game 10: vs. Oak Ridge, 7:30 p.m., Oct. 27*
*Sierra Foothill League game.
The Nevada Union football season kicks off today, and for the first time in a long while the Miners will take the field with a senior-laden team loaded with talent.
“It’s a special team,” Nevada Union head coach Dennis Houlihan said. “It’s the way this group works, the way they are dedicated … They’re a special group. This season is about turning it around and winning games.”
Leading the senior-heavy team is a handful of three-year varsity players who are ready to turn things around and leave a legacy they can be proud of.
“I expect a lot of this team,” said senior quarterback Owen Dal Bon. “Most of this team is a bunch of seniors. As freshmen, we were 9-1, and I know it is freshmen so it doesn’t mean a whole lot because the last two years we’ve struggled. But I really expect a lot of this senior group. Playoffs is the minimum. That’s the goal.”
Dal Bon along with running back Tyler Nielson, wide receiver Hayden Fay and middle linebacker Justin Houlihan are the core four that enter their senior seasons with two or more seasons of varsity ball under their belts.
“This year, we’re taking upon ourselves to cement our legacy,” Justin Houlihan said. “Our goal is to win league. Were going to go all out and we want it.”
The Miners have struggled during the first four years under Dennis Houlihan, going 6-34 overall and 0-23 in the powerful Sierra Foothill League. But optimism is high around the NU practice fields this year. The current group of seniors won a youth football title when they were eighth graders and also went 9-1 when at the freshmen level.
“I think everybody has been looking for this team to bring (NU) back to the top,” said Nielson, who led the team in rushing a season ago. “For all the adversity that we’ve been through the past couple of years, we just want to leave on top. Make it like a movie type of season.”
That sentiment echoes throughout the team.
“Nothing but excellence,” is what senior center Ben Leitherer said he expects from his team. “We’re a really tight group. We’re all friends and we understand each other. We’re in sync when we practice, and we all know how to pick each other up.”
The Miners returned their top playmakers from a season ago, including their top two running backs, starting quarterback and top receiver.
“We have the top receiver in the SFL and, in my opinion, the top backs,” Nielson said. “We can beat teams a lot of different ways.”
Nielson and Dawson Fay will get the bulk of the carries for Nevada Union. The two combined for more than 1,500 rushing yards, 19 rushing touchdowns, and both were named to the All-SFL second team a season ago. Both are threats catching the ball out of the backfield as well.
“Ever since I started coaching Tyler in the Pop Warner ranks, I always thought he had a special gift,” Dennis Houlihan said. “Tyler has an ability to make people miss in the open field. This year, Tyler is really strong. I think he’s going to be able to run through people, break tackles, and his speed has increased enough where I hope he can break big ones for touchdowns.”
Dawson Fay played half back as a sophomore, but this season moves to fullback in NU’s Wing-T offense.
“He hits the hole so fast,” Dennis Houlihan said of Dawson Fay. “He hits it before teams know he has the ball.”
Nevada Union’s top receiving threat is 6-foot, 2-inch Hayden Fay, who torched defenses for 951 yards and eight touchdowns a season ago. He was named to the All-SFL First Team in 2016.
“I really think teams are going to have to choose — to either stop the running game or stop Hayden and the passing game.
“They can’t just pack the box anymore. They have to have two or three guys watching Hayden because he will burn guys if they give him a cushion.”
Throwing Fay the ball will be Dal Bon, who saw time at quarterback as a sophomore and was the full time starter a year ago.
“He’s definitely putting the work in, and when we get out there, our chemistry will be unstoppable,” Hayden Fay said.
Dal Bon will also have sure-handed options at tight end with Justin Houlihan and junior Cameron Dallago.
In the trenches, the Miners have size and depth.
“Our line has been getting after it every single day,” said Dal Bon. “They’re frothing at the mouth and kicking butt.”
The offensive line will consist of Leitherer, Cole Johnson, Keith Ward, Ethan Garrity and Dominic Garrity, as well Reid Pearcy, Brendon DiPietro and Matthew Dal Bon.
The Miners have had a tough time slowing opponents in recent years, especially in SFL play, and that’s something Justin Houlihan is looking to change.
“Since I’ve been on varsity, we’ve had the worst defense in the league,” the two-time All-SFL linebacker said. “I take that personally, and I think our team does too. We know we’re not going to shut some of these teams out, because they are good teams, but we need to cause turnovers. If we can cause turnovers and get our offense the ball, we’ll score.”
Joining Justin Houlihan at linebacker will be Dawson Fay, Nielson and Jace Wheeler.
Nevada Union’s defensive line lacks size, but boasts speed.
Starting at nose guard will be 5-9, 175-pound Hayden Lee.
“Pound for pound, he’s the strongest kid on the team,” said Dennis Houlihan. Ethan Garrity, DiPietro and Dallago will also be in the trenches on defense.
Nevada Union’s secondary will be led by senior cornerback Garrett Graves, who will play his first varsity season after sitting out his junior year with a medical condition.
“He came out and he’s played like this is the last time he will put on pads,” said Dennis Houlihan. “He’s giving it everything he’s got. He’s a talented kid and is playing like he hasn’t missed a beat.”
Other defensive backs to keep an eye on are Will Smith, Isreal Gonzales, Dal Bon and Hayden Fay.
LAST SEASON IN SFL
Nevada Union has finished at the bottom of the SFL in every season under Dennis Houlihan, but last season, the Miners showed they could hang with the high-powered teams in one of Northern California’s toughest leagues. This year, they are confident they can start to climb out of the SFL basement.
“If you look at our games (from last season) and look at the progress we made in them, we were in every one of them up until about the third quarter,” Dennis Houlihan said. “… Our kids as juniors were making those plays. This year as seniors, I do believe they are going to make the difference. They will make those plays that will give us the opportunity to be in it at the end and win the game.
“We very easily could have been 6-4, 7-3 last year, where we were up at half and couldn’t hang on to it. I think with this big group of seniors, who have been together for a long time and they are very confident they can do it, I think you’re going to see the change.”
The SFL is being highly touted once again as Folsom (No. 1), Granite Bay (No. 3), Oak Ridge (No. 4), Del Oro (No. 5) and Rocklin (No. 9) are all in the Sac Bee’s Top-20 preseason rankings.
Nevada Union will leave the SFL after this season and join the Tri-County Conference in 2018.
The Miners open their quest to leave a winning legacy at 7 p.m. tonight when they travel to face the Antelope Titans. Antelope was 12-1 a season ago and edged the Miners 28-21 at Hooper stadium when they met in 2016.
To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, call 530-477-4232 or email email@example.com.
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