Big expectations, big plans at Los Lunas

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On paper, the Los Lunas high football team first-year head coach Duane Toliver inherited in 2013 is impressive: 15 returning starters, a pair of 1,000-yard rushers on offense and the framework of a defense that was among the stoutest in Class 4A last year and a big reason the Tigers went 12-1 and made the state championship game.

But what Toliver found in the field house was better than what he read about, he said.

News-Bulletin file photo: JALEN CHAVEZ is one of two 1,000-yard rushers returning for the Los Lunas Tigers, who seek a return to the state title game.

“Reality is better than what I saw on paper,” he said. “To come here and see their personality and work ethic, it’s just way better than I could have expected.”

Stepping in from a successful run helping to re-invigorating Lubbock High School as defensive coordinator, Toliver comes to Los Lunas High with a few new ideas.

Mainly, the first-time head coach plans to rev up a Tigers offense that was already powerful to begin with.

The transition from former coach Jeremy Newton to Toliver was smooth, said senior Tyler Hansen.

“I think we handled it real well,” he said. “(Coach Toliver) came in and his big thing was he wanted to adapt to us. He didn’t want to change something that wasn’t broken.”

Toliver was complimentary of both the players and the staff.

“There’s a reason why people have high expectations of us,” he said. “It’s nothing to run from. When you have great kids and great coaches, obviously they’re doing things right. I walked into a great situation.”

Once at Los Lunas High, Toliver said he didn’t do much tinkering with the Tigers defense, which is anchored by a trio of seniors — Hansen at nose guard, linebackers Darron Gallegos and Brian Pando and all-state selection Sasha Gallegos at defensive back along with fellow seniors Jacob Holland and Chris Sanchez.

The offense is a another story.

News-Bulletin file photo: The Los lunas HIGH DEFENSE, shown playing county rivals Belen last season, will again be battling the Eagles for supremacy in District 6-4A, as well as striving to return to the Class 4A championship game.

Toliver has remade the already potent Tigers offense with the idea of getting “athletes into space” where they can make plays. The result should be a more wide-open offense as opposed to the power running game LLHS displayed last season.

“The bulk of our changes came in offense,” Tolvier explained. “We had one of the best defenses in 4A last year. (The offense was) already aggressive. All it took was moving Darron to outside, watching him catch the ball and seeing he was a good athlete. Good athletes make good coaches.”

Senior Jalen Chavez was the quick-silver tailback complement to Darron Gallegos’ battering ram fullback last season. He said the team is largely the same as last year on offense, with a little different mind-set.

“We could have passed as much as we ran (last year),” he explained. “This year we’re looking to get athletes into open space. It’s real exciting because everyone is getting into the action.

“And it gives the defenses we face more to worry about,” he concluded with a smile.

With players stepping up into roles once filled by departed seniors, Toliver and the Tigers are in need of a quarterback with the departure of all-state selection Chris Wisneski.

The battle for that spot, which will trigger LLHS’ up tempo, no-huddle offense, has narrowed to juniors Ryan Cline and Anthony Sanchez. Toliver said he is taking his time and carefully weighing his options.

“The thing I’m looking for is the leadership part of it,” he said. “I need to know which one will grab a senior and say ‘Let’s get this right.’ Because that’s a tough thing for an underclassman. But that’s what you need your quarterback to do.”

In 2012, Los Lunas was able to sneak up on people. But this season, the Tigers are considered a strong selection for a repeat trip to the title game. In essence, the hunter from last year has become the hunted. But Chavez doesn’t see it that way.

“I look at it like we’re still the hunters because we had a great season but because of what happened (in the state title game),” he said. “We’re all coming at this with some fire and anger. We feel like (other teams) have the pressure on them.”

Chavez said the loss to Roswell Goddard in the championship game humbled the team.

“That (game) being in the back of our minds, it’s something we don’t want to happen again,” he said. “This year we’ve just got to stay humble and hungry.”

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