Valencia High Jaguars loaded with experience, speed

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As the late summer sun beat down on the practice field at Valencia High School, a potential conundrum the Jaguars faced in their upcoming season was masked by all the activity.

“Not enough footballs to go around,” laughed third-year coach Kevin Jolley. “It’s gonna be a problem.”

Kenn Rodriguez-News-Bulletin photo: Garrett Gibson, a 6-foot-6 senior, will be running Valencia’s spread-option attack. He is one of the keys to a Jaguars roster that has 15 returning starters.

With 15 returning starters, most of them seniors, Valencia seems poised to challenge defending district champion Belen for the league title and possibly make a deep run into the Class 5A state playoffs.

But how to get the ball into the hands of its quartet of uber-talented senior running backs – halfbacks Joshua Burbank (a state sprint champion), Nate Nash, Tyler McClarran and fullback Marcos Griego?

Jolley said he has a few ideas.

“We can go with power or we can be more finesse and speed if we have to,” he said. “With our personnel, we can exchange some things and open up a little bit to get guys in space with the ball. And we’ve added a few wrinkles to take advantage of that.”

With 6-foot-6 senior Garrett Gibson, Valencia also has a tough, proven quarterback to trigger the team’s spread option. That could be as invaluable as the speed Gibson has behind and beside him.

The other plus for the team is cohesion, Gibson said. Many of the team’s upperclassmen have played together since their YAFL days. Almost all of them were part of undefeated eighth-grade and freshman teams that ran roughshod over opponents in 2010 and 2011. That’s a huge asset, Gibson said.

“We have a lot of experience,” he said. “With our triple option, there’s not a bad decision. It gives me a lot of leeway. We have a lot of confidence. State is our main goal. There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t talk about it.”

For the Jaguars to get back to the state playoffs and advance to the state semifinals, as they did in 2011 when they went 11-1, the biggest challenge is to replace three key offensive and defensive linemen.

But returners Alex D’Arrezo and and Jolley’s son Nathan, who is getting interest from a few schools, including Montana of the Big Sky Conference, are part of a solid core who bring experience.

“We do have some great guys coming up,” Nathan Jolley said. “We have people who are going to step up. They’re young, but (right now) it’s just working and training together that’ll get us there.”

Kevin Jolley said juniors Cayden Sharp and Isaac Lewis look to be stellar replacements on the line while Griego and senior Orlando Lucero will both likely be defensive keys at linebacker.

Nash and McClarran are expected to play in the defensive backfield, in addition to Gibson at free safety, although coach Jolley would prefer that Gibson play only offense.

“It’s not the best thing, having your quarterback in on defense,” he said, “but he’s such a great athlete, you hate to keep him off the field.”

Part of the personnel problem is Valencia’s low numbers. As of the week before the start of school, Valencia had about 35 players.

With so many players going both ways, Valencia’s defense is going to be called on to produce more in the way of turnovers as well as quick turnarounds.

“Champions are made at practice, who’s going to put in more work and has more heart. On defense, we need to get more stops. Our defense is based off aggression,” Nash said.

Valencia’s pre-district schedule is balanced between midlevel teams like as Alamogordo and perennial contenders like Artesia. Some observers have the Jaguars among the top 10 in 5A but still third in their own district, behind Belen and Centennial.

“I personally like playing as the underdog, so I don’t think it’s a problem that people think Belen is better than us,” Gibson said. “I think we’ll surprise some more people this year. We know about the pressure of big games (now).”