CNJ staff photo: Rick White/Clovis senior defensive end Jarod Baldwin closes in on Las Cruces High QB Brandon Lucero during last week’s scrimmage.Jarod Bald
No Hank Baskett. No Nathan Nuttall. No Joey Garcia.
No chance for the Clovis Wildcats? Not necessarily.
For the first time in several years, the Wildcats head into a season without a big-name player, a go-to guy that keeps opponents up at night.
In fact, even the most ardent Wildcat fan might be hard-pressed to name the returning starters from last year’s team that reached the state semifinals one year after winning it all in 2001.
Strong-armed Ryan Denton returns at quarterback, lineman Scott Fahsholtz is a human road-grader at 6-foot-2 and 254 pounds, and cornerback Mark Young has shown the knack for making big plays. But otherwise, the 2003 Wildcats have more holes to fill than a greenskeeper at a gopher-infested municipal golf course.
“In the last 20 years we’ve gone into the season a few times without a stud and done all right,” said Clovis defensive coordinator Darren Kelley. “I think the biggest thing in non-district play is to find that go-to guy, the guy who understands what it takes to get it done and is willing to fill those shoes.”
Clovis opens its season tonight at Las Cruces Mayfield, which is ranked third in the Albuquerque Journal’s preseason coaches’ poll and returns a solid nucleus from last year’s team that didn’t lose until the state title game.
After graduating 19 senior starters, Kelley said the primary goal to start the season is to get the team ready for district play. The Wildcats, ranked fifth in the Journal poll, have gone 22-3 the last two seasons.
“Don’t get me wrong, winning is always important,” Kelley said. “I think we’re going to get better. This week was better than last week. The key is working hard. Because if we don’t work hard, it’s going to be a long season.”
Nobody has bigger shoes to fill this fall than junior John Props, who steps in at free safety for Garcia, a two-time, all-state selection who kept opponents out of the middle of the field with his helmet-rattling hits.
Garcia is a freshman at Texas Tech, Baskett (2000) is at New Mexico and Nuttall (2001) is at New Mexico State.
“You can’t really fill the shoes of a player like that,” Props said. “I just have to go out and play as hard as I can. I’ll have to use my quickness and speed because I can’t hit like Joey.”
Clovis will also be hard-pressed to replace all-staters Jacob Roberts at center and Drew Hatley at strong safety.
“The thing we’re going to do is keep things as simple as possible where they can go play football and not think about it,” Kelley said.
One of the keys for the Wildcats this season is to rebuild a running game that struggled in 2002. Junior Phillip Williams showed early flashes of being a game-breaker before dislocating an elbow the first week of practice. Kelley said he could be back in two weeks. Senior Shea Chase rushed for 292 yards and three touchdowns last season as a part-time starter.
The Wildcats’ passing game appears more settled as Ben Teconchuk anchors a deep receiving corps that also includes Mario Caswell at tight end.
Denton, who didn’t take over as the full-time starter until district play, passed for more than 750 yards last season.
“He’s got to do a better job of executing,” Kelley said. “He’s got to be the one to hold it together back there.”
Senior tackle Steve Gulley is the only returning starter along an offensive line that is the biggest question mark heading into the season.
“We just have to work hard,” said Caswell, the biggest Wildcat at 6-5 and 250 pounds. “If everybody just does their job, we’ll be OK.”
The team’s strength on defense lies in a line anchored by Fahsholtz, junior nose guard Jason Burns and Caswell and Jarod Baldwin at defensive end. Both Burns and Fahscholtz have the strength to demand double teams.
“I don’t think we’re going to get pushed around by too many people,” Kelley said. “We’ve just got to keep it simple and let them play.”
Kelley knows it’s impossible to replace the leadership and talent of Garcia and Hatley, but likes the potential of a secondary led by Young and Props. Young had a pair of interceptions in last week’s scrimmage against Las Cruces High.
One area where the Wildcats do have experience is the kicking game.
Senior kicker Jason Seefeld is one of the best in the state with a range of 50-plus yards while Caswell is in his third season as the punter.