With the midpoint of the 2013 season here, the three Sparks-area prep football programs have all played four games and had one bye. The trio couldn't be sitting in three more different positions. Reed is perfect at 4-0. Spanish Springs has seen mixed results with a 2-2 start to its season and Sparks has struggled, dropping all four of its contests, and in lopsided fashion.
All three local teams are in action Friday night. Here's a closer look at the matchups involving the Sparks schools.
Fallon at Sparks, Friday 7 p.m. As if things haven't been tough enough for Sparks, now the Railroaders get Fallon and Lowry in back-to-back weeks. The two schools look like they may be the favorites for a league title. Fallon has hammered Wooster, South Tahoe, Dayton and Elko and has not played a game with a final margin closer than 28 points.
"These next two weeks we get Fallon and Lowry. They're probably the class of the North I-A, just by looking at scores," Sparks coach Rob Kittrell said. "Having watched Fallon play, they're real athletic and really fundamentally sound. Defensively, they shed blocks and go make tackles. Offensively, they sustain blocks. Their running backs are quick. They get it and go if you're not gang tackling them."
The Railroaders' coaching staff knows Fallon is a run-first offensive team, but that doesn't make it any easier to slow the Greenwave. Kittrell said there have been times in recent weeks his team has loaded up to stop the run only to watch an opponent still find ways to make plays.
"Fallon wants to run the ball, control the field and play solid defense," the long-time SHS coach said. "They can throw it if they have to, but the bottom line is they're a ball control team and we have to play solid defense.
"We thought we could do that (load up to stop the run) a little bit last week when Truckee was in certain formations ... Even when we do load up on the run to slow someone down, it feels like we're right there in 1-on-1 coverage and guys make plays. We don't have that same fortune. Because we've struggled the last two years, and been inexperienced, teams come in with confidence against us, and vice versa, we've lacked confidence. We must play pretty close to perfect early on. We need to stay in the game. We can't have lots of early miscues. Then we'll see what happens."
Kittrell watched film Saturday of his team's loss to Truckee a day earlier. He said there are positives to point to, but just not enough of them. The Railroaders coach said he and his staff have no choice but to keep teaching and working to help their squad improve.
"I've seen a lot of good little things that we've done," Kittrell said. "We're just not sustaining it. We'll come off the ball and be getting to the right spots, but then it comes down to not sustaining blocks or on defense not running through to our spots to tackle after we get ready. It's a lot of small little things that are just not enough.
"The guys are getting better. Our problem is just that our improvements aren't big enough to catch up with our opponent. We see improvement, but we're not getting enough to get to the competitive point. It doesn't help when you fall behind two or three touchdowns in the first quarter. That makes it tough, but we'll keep fighting. The only other alternative is to quit and that's not an option."
Hug at Spanish Springs, Friday 7 p.m.
It's been an up-and-down preseason for Spanish Springs, alternating wins and losses through the last four weeks. The Cougars wrapped up their non-league schedule with a 15-14 come-from behind win at Douglas last Friday. The Cougars scored a touchdown in the final minute and got a two-point conversion to steal the win. It's a victory Cougars coach Scott Hare believes could pay big dividends as his Spanish Springs squad prepares for the rest of its fall campaign.
"I think it's a big deal. It's a big deal the way we won it," Hare said. "The fact that we had to come back to do it, going for two, getting it. I told our coaches and players you can win or lose a non-league game. You'll still be judged on your league season. But I thought after 48 minutes, because of the way that game had progressed, it was big for us."
Cougars coaches were frustrated with a season-opening loss to Damonte Ranch on Sept. 6, questioning their players toughness and effort. But since, the Spanish Springs staff has largely liked what it's seen from its student athletes. Hare lauded his team for the strides its made each week, especially its defense, which had been getting torched on a weekly basis before limiting Douglas to just 14 points.
"I think we've gotten better every week," Hare said. "I don't know if I can say that about some other years. Even the ones where we've been 5-0, I'm not sure we got better every week. The kids have taken into Fridays what we've focused on during the week. We've made it clear to the kids and gone into each week with a focus, plus we've retained week to week.
"We now need to become more finite. We need to watch more film and understand what our opponents are trying to do. When you're missing tackles, it doesn't matter what your opponent is doing. You must get to practice and tackle. But now we have to understand what teams are trying to do, get to the right area and be precise in what we're doing."
Hare said his team's improvement is due to three key factors. Initially the Cougars were struggling to tackle and finish plays. Then as that got better players were not making good reads. The Cougars' eighth-year coach said those areas have been better and that the SSHS gridders are getting healthier. Hare expects his team on Friday to suit up and start the 11 defenders he envisioned as starters for the first time this season.
Hug is 0-5 on the season. Hare attributes many of the HHS woes to an offense that starts a freshman under center, but he said those struggles will thin out as the quarterback gets more game experience and he praised the Hawks' defensive unit.
"Hug's (defensive) front three is the best we've seen," Hare said. "They do a great job getting after you. They come straight up the field. They play incredibly tough. Their defense can go toe to toe with anybody. Hug is starting a freshmen quarterback and any time you do that, there's going to be bumps and bruises, but they've gotten better.
"They have a lot of athletes and some big kids too. They're definitely a scary football team. We have to swarm to the football. Hug has a couple different running backs. We've got bring a couple different guys to the party (defensively) or they'll make you pay."
McQueen at Reed, Friday 7 p.m.
Reed's High Desert League schedule couldn't kick off with a bigger game. The Raiders host the Lancers in a game many believe could decide the conference crown. No team other than Reed or McQueen has won an HDL title since Elko in 2001.
The game is the league opener for Reed but McQueen (3-1) does have a conference clash under its belt, having already beaten Reno. Still, the local schools have made a practice out of facing each other early in the league schedule, including both team's HDL debut last fall.
"(McQueen) Coach Snelling and I talked about it. We wish we had a little more control over scheduling," Reed coach Ernie Howren said. "We'd love to see the game played a little later in the season to give both teams the opportunity to make it an even more interesting game. Still, I don't think having it be the first league game for us takes away from it still being exciting."
Howren is happy to see the calendar finally reach the start of the league schedule.
"This is what we've been building up for, our league play," Howren said. "How we practice, all the preseason games we play, the trips out of state, we want anything we can get that gives us an advantage in preparing for league. It's nice to finally be playing a league game."
Raiders coaches are never happy until they've won a title, whether its of the league or region variety. Even with a perfect 4-0 start, at Reed, no one rests until there is no more football to be played.
"I am so proud of the things we've done but the kids know the first thing I'd tell them is don't settle. There's still a whole lot of things we can do better," Howren said.
The Raiders' veteran coach did nothing praise but McQueen during his weekly telephone interview Monday night.
"McQueen has got a couple guys that are some of the best players in the league. Lucas Weber is as big and fast as any running back in the league. He has the potential to get a breakaway touchdown on every single play. I think he'd tell you the reason he can do that is the offensive line led by Sione Asi. He is one of the better linemen in the league right now.
"One thing traditionally McQueen does is they're a physical football team," Howren said. "That's the goal and something they believe in ... I expect a physical game. That's who McQueen is and that's who we are."