New year, new outlook for Sierra Linda
Three returning juniors on the line give Bulldogs optimism for 2019
WEEKLY BLOG: 2/17/19
Sierra Linda enters its 10th season in 2019 and the school is still trying to get its footing in. The Bulldogs are on their fourth head coach in team history. The program is still looking for its first non-losing season.
Perhaps all the casual fan knows about Sierra Linda is they were that team that begged off of playing Centennial the week of the game in 2017 and got the AIA to cancel the contest, citing injury concerns.
Nate Gill is out to change that.
The Bulldogs' head coach was hired in the summer of 2018, and shortly before that, there were rumors that the school was going to drop football. I checked in with the athletic director, who shot those down. Still, it's a school that doesn't generate a lot of headlines.
Looking at the numbers, Sierra Linda has a record of 14-74 over nine seasons with the high-water mark being a 4-6 campaign in 2015. When the Bulldogs topped Rincon to open the 2018 season, it snapped a 24-game losing streak. Unfortunately, that was the only game SLHS was victorious in as it dropped the next nine by 30 or more (average margin of 45.6).
Despite that negative paragraph, the program is trending upward. There were 62 players on the roster last year and just 13 of them were seniors.
"Numbers are drastically up in off-season training and the kids that go to our school that should be playing are finally beginning to come out," Gill said in an e-mail interview. "The guys have really bought into the Bulldog way and we expect things to continue to get better as far as our program overall."
Gill came to Sierra Linda from Mayville State, an NAIA school in North Dakota, where he was an assistant on the Comets' staff for six years. He was a former captain at MSU and was a four-year letter winner at the school.
Last season, Sierra Linda posted stats from just one game. Gill assures us that he'll do a better job delegating that out next season. There were still some highlights to be had, though. And it starts with that win over Rincon.
"That was the first game the school had won in three seasons, so that game meant a lot," Gill said. "Also, competing extremely tough with Agua Fria for the first 20 minutes of that football game. The score was 7-0 up until then, and it really showed our younger guys what the team is capable of when everyone works hard Monday through Thursday and does their jobs on Friday night."
Another point of pride was the Bulldogs' game against Camelback the first week of October. Gill's older brother passed away at just 34 years of age earlier in the week.
"I didn't tell my team anything until right before we went out for warmups and we came out and competed hard for the first three quarters of that game," Gill said. "I actually had to leave the game with about five minutes left in the fourth quarter to catch a flight back home to Houston for the funeral. The guys really came out and gave everything and that's all you can ask for as a coach."
The biggest challenge for Sierra Linda is building a tradition at a school that doesn't have one in today's "what have you done lately for me" age.
"We are now in a microwave society where no one wants to see things through," Gill said. "They want quick results. I continuously show the guys that my staff and I care about them and we tell them the big time is wherever you are."
Gill says he plans on being there for a while and he is starting to see more retention from the kids. One of the things that will keep players active and involved is seeing some of them head off to the college level.
That happened this month with safety Jesus Montes, who signed with Peru State, an NAIA school in Nebraska. Montes played some cornerback, safety, linebacker, wide receiver, and a little bit of quarterback. He was a Second Team All-5A Metro Region selection at linebacker and wide receiver.
"Jesus is ultra-competitive and was really a Swiss Army knife for our team," Gill said. "He's a tireless worker who leads by example and those attributes, accompanied by solid academics, got him the opportunity to play at the next level."
The next class could include a few more Bulldogs players on National Signing Day.
Hayden Claye is the left tackle and is 6-5 and 260 pounds. Gill said Claye has taken leaps and bounds since his sophomore year. Wyoming has shown interest and Northern Arizona was in to see him a few weeks ago.
"The growth he experienced in a year is one of those things that you rarely see," Gill said. "He didn't play much as a sophomore, but kept growing and kept being coachable every day."
On the other side is Estevan Saldana at right tackle. He stands at 6-2 and 285 pounds. Saldana originally was solely a basketball player, but Gill persistently asked him to come out for football. He has been getting some attention from Division II schools in the Midwest. Likely a guard at the next level, Gill said Saldana is raw, but has great upside and tools.
"He came out and the footwork from basketball really helped him as a first-year football guy," Gill said. "He's a dancing bear as we in the football world like to call O-line guys with good footwork. I expect him to take an even bigger stride as he's had a strong offseason and has really become a football player as far as mentality."
On the defensive line, Y'marius Joshlin was a Second Team All-Region performer at defensive lineman and tight end. Wyoming has also had interest in the freakishly athletic lineman with a strong motor. He was also on NAU's list during its recent visit. Gill believes Joshlin can be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year in the 5A Metro Region if he continues to grind this offseason.
"He's had a monster offseason in the weight room and has packed on 15 pounds since November," Gill said. "He has extremely long arms and is a really twitchy athlete. He's really begun to take to understand how good he can be and is putting the work in."
Spring ball will begin in just over two months and it will be a chance for players to Earn their Bone. Gill is not a huge 7-on-7 guy as he knows that success in that area doesn't necessarily translate to 11-on-11. However, they will do some 7's this summer to get their quarterbacks an opportunity to compete and work on their timing with the receivers.
"I'm big on team cohesion and skill development," Gill said. "Let's become better teammates and better football players first and foremost."
The current alignment is much friendlier than it was in 2017, when the Bulldogs were in the Northwest Region and faced Liberty and canceled the game against Centennial. Sierra Linda now plays in the Metro Region, which sent no teams to the playoffs in the new format last year (which eliminated automatic qualifiers). The combined out-of-region record of the six schools was 6-24. On the Dawgs schedule, only Greenway made the playoffs last year.
Once again, the season will start against Rincon, only this time in Tucson. Improvement won't necessarily be measured by wins and losses, but by getting the team to be competitive for longer in the games. With a full offseason to prepare, Gill will have his charges ready.
"I'm excited about this season," Gill said. "We will be big and talented on the offensive line and our skill players gained some valuable experience last year. The guys are really beginning to take on the personality of our staff and they are really competing hard this offseason."