Warriors savoring turnaround season
The Whittell football team felt optimistic headed into the 2014 season — but the Warriors never could have imagined the success that lied ahead. Whittell has won its first nine games of the season and will play Virginia City for the league championship Thursday night, a year removed from a one-win campaign.
“It feels great, but we’re not done yet — we’d like a league championship,” senior running back/defensive back Jake Sharp said.
Whittell went 1-7 during the 2013 season for its fifth straight losing campaign — and ninth in the past decade. After the season, head coach David Housel was let go and replaced by Phil Bryant — Bryant was hired just a month removed from leading the Warriors to a Div. III state championship in boys basketball.
“They knew me from basketball and there was a level of trust and confidence in me as a coach — I think that really helped,” Bryant said. “It was somebody they knew and were familiar with.”
Though Bryant was more known at Whittell for his coaching exploits on the hardwood, he brought decades of experience on the gridiron to the Warriors’ program. One player that was already familiar with his football prowess was Sharp — his father Brian Sharp played for Bryant at Westwood (Calif.).
“He’s a great coach all around — offensively, defensively and with special teams,” Sharp said. “He understands all three phases of the game, and that’s what we needed.
Whittell’s first practice with Bryant came in the gym on a snowy spring afternoon. During that session, Bryant laid out for the players what they would need to do to be successful — and ensured them that success would come if they bought into his plan.
“He told us that the season was going to be a lot different — we were going to practice everyday and practice hard, there weren’t going to be any days off and we were going to have to come out with confidence and accept his ideas,” senior lineman Quinn Kixmiller said.
One prerequisite for players to make the 2014 roster was 45 days in the weight room during the offseason. This made Whittell’s players faster and stronger, but also helped them build a team bond that had begun to fracture by the end of the 2013 season.
“It was really tough,” said junior quarterback Colin Buchholz, who played mostly defense in 2013. “Before our games, players would take the week off and they thought it was a joke — it wasn’t easy going through that. This year we’ve come together a lot more and we take more pride in it — by the end of last year we were just hoping for the season to be over.”
Whittell’s players trained hard during the spring and summer months — both physically and mentally. Most of the players on the team were learning football in earnest for the first time.
“This season has been a lot more disciplined with a lot more conditioning,” senior linebacker Kai Mangiaracina said. “The whole team knows what they are doing and it’s amazing what it has brought us to.”
With the regular season on the horizon, Whittell traveled to Westwood for its preseason scrimmage — the nerves associated with taking the field for the first time with a new coach quickly dissipated when Sharp ran for a touchdown on the game’s first snap. At that point, the Warriors believed the 2014 season could be different — but had no idea just how different it would be.
“After we had more and more practices and starting to buy into what he was saying, we started to notice a change,” senior tight end/defensive back Bryce Bronken said. “In our first scrimmage and throughout the offseason, we could tell that it was going to be a good season.”
Whittell won its opener at Loyalton and beat Excel Christian in its home debut the following week to eclipse its win total from the previous season. A win over Silver Stage and a victory in its league debut against Coleville helped the Warriors gain confidence.
“People didn’t really expect us to win many games this year — now they expect us to win all our games,” Kixmiller said.
Whittell rolled past Pyramid Lake, Sierra Lutheran and Smith Valley to improve to 7-0 and ensure its best season since 2008. Then the Warriors faced their biggest test of the season — and won a 56-50 double overtime thriller at Mineral County, erasing a 22-point halftime deficit to remain unbeaten.
“At first, a lot of the people at our school didn’t know how to handle having a winning football program — but now they’ve gotten used to it and it’s added a lot of school spirit and made our school a better place to be at,” Bronken said.
Offensively, Whittell is averaging 52 points per game led by Buchholz (1,337 yards, 24 touchdowns). In the backfield, the Warriors feature the trio of Sharp, senior Max Primo and freshman Corey Huber — Sharp has run for 805 yards and 15 touchdowns, and Huber has 845 yards and six touchdowns in his first varsity season.
“We have talented backs — Max is the fastest kid on the team and Jake is a powerful runner,” Huber said. “In the games we all try our hardest to break as many tackles as we can, whether it’s spinning, breaking tackles or just diving with the ball.”
The Warriors’ defense coached by Doug Patton has allowed more than 20 points in just three games during the team’s undefeated run. A question mark headed into the season, Whittell’s defensive unit plays with speed and intensity to shut down opponents.
“They fly around — they’re smaller than every other team in the league but they’re really quick and aggressive,” said Patton, a Whittell alum. “We have a quicker pass rush, our defensive backs can cover anybody in the league and our linebackers are solid — all three levels are fast.”
Whittell learned how to work, play and win, and now has a league championship in its sights as a result— something players could only dream of at the beginning of the season. The Warriors face perennial power Virginia City in a winner-take-all regular season finale with the chance to capture the league title on their home field.
“We want it — we want it bad,” Kixmiller said. “It’s been such a long time since football has done something exciting around here.”
After concluding the regular season, Whittell will begin postseason play. In uncharted territory, the Warriors have built the confidence necessary to compete for a state championship.
“I believe that we can compete with every team in the league and every eight-man team in the state,” Sharp said.
Belief like that would have been hard to come by for Whittell in seasons past. It started with faith in a new coach, then trust in one another — now the Warriors think anything is possible.
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