Older, stronger Incline Village Highlander gridders ready for re-boot in 2019 | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Older, stronger Incline Village Highlander gridders ready for re-boot in 2019

Incline junior Dylan Cleary returns a kickoff in practice earlier this week.
Bill Rozak / Tahoe Daily Tribune

INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Incline football boss Brian Martinez believes that a renewed team spirit, a massive, talented freshman class and a core group of juniors and seniors who want to wash away a “super bitter taste” from last year is the right combination for the Highlanders to excel this season.

“Every team in the league is optimistic at this point in the season,” Martinez said. “I am pessimistically, optimistic because last year started off so good. But our war cry is to not let that happen again. We take the good from last year and make it better and the garbage, we just dump it.”

The Highlanders rolled to victories in their first two games of the season, including a 39-28 solid beatdown of its rival North Tahoe, and were thinking about playoffs and state championships.

But they finished the year with seven straight losses.

“To be quite honest, I will never know why we lost seven in a row,” said speedy junior Dylan Cleary, a three-year starter at quarterback. “But we’re definitely using that as motivation to come back. This year we’re motivated as ever to win.”

After a weekend team bonding getaway to the Santa Cruz mountains, the Highlanders opened fall practice Monday with more positive energy, and hustle, than anytime last year.

If they walked anywhere on the field, out came the whistles, “OK, chop it up,” Martinez would say.

The players sprinted in place and then did up-downs every few seconds on the whistle.

Senior linebacker/runningback Jorge Cardiel appreciates giving full effort.

“It’s fun working hard, I don’t want the coaches to be easy on us,” Cardiel said. “Everyone has to put in the work, give 100 percent and just work hard. Every other team we face, we need to work harder. We’re hungry this year.”

Highlanders, community suffer devastating loss

The Highlanders, and entire Incline community, suffered a devastating loss a couple weeks ago when Joe Wilderman, who graduated in June, died.

Wilderman was beloved by his teammates and friends.

The players are still dealing with the loss and have come together to get through it.

The team camp in Santa Cruz helped players and coaches, let out their emotions and start working their way through the pain.

“We lost one of our friends and the key to this team is to have each other’s backs and to talk if you have problems,” said junior lineman Marco Barraza. “This is a family.”

Big numbers, lots of talent

Incline opened fall camp with 36 players on the roster, including a whopping 15 freshmen, with some among the biggest players on the team.

Though there’s no mistaking the Highlanders biggest player in Barraza.

The 6-foot-2, 240 pounder looks ready to be a physical force on each side of the ball. And Barraza said the coaches might even let him carry the ball some.

“Marco, the weights have done him well,” Martinez said. “He is stronger than he looks, which is amazing. He’ll be on the line and at fullback at times. He’s a consummate team player.”

Martinez pointed to Marcos Resendez who with pads looks older and much larger than a normal freshman. He said he’s already deadlifting 400 pounds.

Aside from a few graduated players, the Highlanders return nearly all of their starters in 2019, including Cleary, who was also the team’s leading rusher.

Cleary threw for over 1,000 yards and six touchdowns and rushed for 695 yards and four scores.

Cleary is the starter with junior JT Page pushing him for time. Martinez plans to groom younger quarterbacks and have them ready.

Junior Brad Rye, the team’s second leading rusher (82-596-6) and leading receiver (19-191-2), also returns and the duo form one of the fastest combinations in the state.

Cleary and Rye a few weeks ago were half of a 4×800-meter relay national championship winning team at the Junior Olympics in Sacramento.

Senior Gage Pierce is the team’s third leading rusher (48-197-3) and was stronger at the end of the year where he essentially split carries with Rye.

Senior Kai Martinez and Page “are killing it” at wide receiver and also at defensive back, the coach said. Also Tyler Manship returns to the team after not playing last year. He’ll be in the mix at receiver, tight end and defensive back where Martinez said “he’ll be lock-down on defense.”

Cardiel is a team leader on and off the field Martinez said.

Cardiel lines up at middle linebacker and provides a physical punch for the defense.

Through the first two games last year before getting injured, Cardiel lived in the backfield of opposing offenses.

And Martinez loves what he sees wherever he looks around the field.

“Everywhere I look, I see awesome,” Martinez said. “It’s a matter of them fulfilling their potential and us to allow them too. As coaches, we’re going to have a hard time deciding on team captains, we have a lot of options.”

Wins wanted, losing is not an option

Martinez said he had a record amount of players who consistently were in the weight room starting two weeks after last year ended.

“We averaged about 20 kids this year and this is by far the strongest group anybody can remember in recent history,” Martinez said. “I’m super happy with this group of kids.”

And he’s not shy about his goals for the team, “Undefeated. Is there any other way? Any loss is devastating,” he said. “My kids informed me that I’m not a very happy person the weekend after a loss. I didn’t realize it was that transparent, but my wife shook her head too. It’s just you work hard and last year was a lot of frustration because we were way better than we showed.”

The players can also feel the positive energy compared to last year at the same point.

They are looking forward to moving on and building a new legacy.

“The culture we have is great,” Cleary said. “Last year we were real young and didn’t have a lot of leaders. This year a lot of kids are stepping up like JT, Jorge and some of the seniors. To have them basically inject energy into this team has created an awesome culture. The freshmen, there’s a lot of them. And having them, they’re an awesome class, we’re real excited.”