Senior Brian Mead (28) scored 21 touchdowns last season in helping the Clovis High football team reach the Class 5A state championship game last season. (CNJ staff photo: Andy DeLisle)
By Dave Wagner: CNJ sports writer
Two years ago, the Clovis High football team started its season on an ominous note with a 35-0 loss to Mayfield at Leon Williams Stadium, leaving coaches and players scratching their heads.
After a 1-3 start that year, the Wildcats rebounded with seven consecutive wins to reach the Class 5A state finals.
Clovis opens its season at home with Mayfield again on Friday, and while the end result in 2004 wasn’t bad, the Cats would like to avoid a similar start.
It is also a rematch of the last year’s 5A state final in Las Cruces, won by the Trojans 17-7.
“It’s going to be a huge game,” CHS senior tight end-defensive end Michael Lewis said. “How we play in that game will determine a lot.”
Both teams are rebuilding, but both have been consistent playoff contenders. The Cats have won 10 titles in coach Eric Roanhaus’ 28 seasons and finished second eight times.
To be in that position again, a lot of players will have to step into key positions, including Lewis, projected as one of two two-way starters when the season begins.
“It’s going to be a leadership role, with lots of responsibility,” said the 6-foot-3, 218-pound Lewis, who returned an interception for a touchdown in Friday’s scrimmage against Las Cruces High. “For me, it goes both ways. If you don’t do your job on offense, you don’t score; if you don’t do it on defense, they (opponents) do.”
The Cats’ offense will center around their two returning playmakers, senior running back Brian Mead and senior wide receiver Rishard Matthews. Last year, they combined for 41 touchdowns and more than 3,000 total yards.
Mead (5-7, 165) will start in the backfield along with junior Manuel Robles (6-0, 172) and junior quarterback Jordan Mendoza (6-2, 180), both up from the junior varsity.
Backups at running back include senior Cade Wheeler (5-9, 182) and juniors Jaden Isler (5-10, 155) and Derrick Phillips (5-9, 162).
“We’re fine at running back; we’ve got depth,” CHS assistant coach Darren Kelley said. “We’ve got some people we can move around skill-wise. We’re definitely young up front; those guys have a lot of growing pains to go through.”
Although the starting offensive line consists of all seniors — Michael Cohen (6-1, 280) and Brenton Hartle (6-2, 258) at the tackles, with seniors Ismael Fuseini (6-0, 190) and Dominique Chairez (5-11, 192) at the guards and senior Brandon Ayres (6-0, 245) at center — only Cohen has any varsity experience.
Lewis will open at tight end, with seniors Luke Masters (6-6, 220) and Blake Hicks (6-1, 185) as backups.
“We’ll be able to rest (Lewis) on offense with Luke, and on defense with (seniors) Rene Martinez and Barret Stewart,” Kelley said.
Candidates for the second wide receiver position are Stewart (6-1, 184), senior Keaton Howell (5-5, 155) and junior Bryce Hill (6-0, 175).
On defense, the Cats suffered a blow in preseason when junior strong safety Diondre Hunter went down with a knee injury that could sideline him for the year.
Kelley, who serves as the defensive coordinator, returns only Cohen at tackle and Wheeler at linebacker as starters on that platoon.
“We’ve had several years where we’ve had that before,” said Kelley, a 1986 CHS graduate who has been on the staff for 16 years, the last four as defensive coordinator. “Replacing people (from last year) is not the issue; it’s getting (the newcomers) used to the speed of the game.”
Other candidates at defensive tackle are senior Skyler Hodson (6-0, 265) and junior Michael Howard (6-0, 185), with senior Jon Nelson (5-11, 238) at nose guard. Lewis and Masters are the ends, backed up by Stewart and Martinez.
Junior Taylor Muse (6-0, 230) is scheduled to start at linebacker with Wheeler, backed up by Chairez and senior Ismail Fuseini (6-0, 190).
The cornerbacks are slated to be Hill and senior Kolt Merren (5-11, 170. Senior Cobey Isbell (5-10, 175) will likely start at strong safety for Hunter, with Isler playing free safety.
Lewis knows there are expectations and admitted he’s a bit anxious as the season approaches.
“We haven’t really played yet,” Lewis said. “We’re starting to come together as a team, and hopefully we can keep it up.
Kelley said the team is still a work in progress.
“We’ve got to get to where we execute and start to go harder (in practice),” he said. “They have to realize that if they work hard from Monday through Thursday, it can be a whole lot of fun on Friday night.”