With the kickoff of the 2014 high school football season quickly approaching, our reporters will be out at local practices checking in with contenders, dark horses and rebuilding teams alike as they gear up for the fall. Here is the latest installment of our Camp Countdown:
When Northwest began preseason practices this time last year, no one knew what to expect out of the team, its coach and players included. The routine in practice was the same when the Jaguars jogged onto their practice field this week, but the feeling was different. There’s a state championship to defend now and the expectation that Northwest will be a contender.
For Northwest to pick up where it left off, it’ll have to replace a talented crop of speedy receivers. Quarterback Mark Pierce’s top targets are gone, but his new ones are taller and faster. At other positions, the Jaguars return players who have started in the past, making them the favorite in the 4A West region.
“The expectations are very high this season,” Pierce said. “We didn’t know what to expect last year because we didn’t really know ourselves. Now, we know who we are and what we have to work with. I think it’s definitely an advantage for us, and we’re a lot better now than we were at this time last year. We’re definitely going to take a different role, and a lot of people are going to be coming for us.”
Matt Watson, Joshua Gills and Trint Coulter accounted for nearly 950 receiving yards and 14 touchdown receptions last season. Pierce became the starting quarterback as a sophomore halfway through the season and leaned on his receivers for big yards after the catch. With Watson, Gills, Coulter and others gone, Pierce is working on chemistry with a new crop of receivers.
Aaron-David Beidleman, Brandon Williams, Jamar Wilson and Troy Lefeged will be the starters going into the season, but others will rotate in. The group doesn’t have the experience that the players surrounding Pierce last season did, but he was able to get a lot of repetitions in with them during 7-on-7 passing league this summer.
“Some people say, ‘Oh, passing league doesn’t really matter for anything and it doesn’t really reflect on your season,’” Pierce said. “You can gain a lot of chemistry with your receivers, so that definitely helped with them.”
Coach Mike Neubeiser has seen Pierce, who had more than 1,400 passing yards and 20 touchdowns in 2013, take on a greater leadership role going into this season. As just a sophomore, not much was expected of him, especially since few predicted he’d wind up the starting quarterback on a state championship team. Now when the team runs after practice, Pierce tries to be one of the fastest players to set an example.
“I’ve seen him grow up a lot,” Neubeiser said. “He’s always been mature for his age. He leads by example. He does a great job of being a positive leader with the guys. He’s kind of one of those guys that kind of has that it-factor. You don’t see them too often, so he’s kind of special.”
The Jaguars return running back E.J. Lee, who had 301 rushing yards for four touchdowns last season. Defensively, linebackers Samer Manna and Rasheed Gillis were the biggest losses. Wilson will play in the secondary in addition to playing wide receiver, and Kwabena Asamoah, who transferred to Northwest during the team’s playoff run last year, will play cornerback. Neubeiser expects the entire secondary to play in college.
“Our numbers are really good,” Neubeiser said. “The kids we have stepping up into those positions are as good if not better than the ones that were there before.”