PHOENIX — Toby Walker had an inkling last season would be a tough one. A small senior class forced the fourth-year coach to post starting lineups dominated by sophomores.
The end result was a one-win season — the lone victory came by forfeit over Hidden Valley — and a high number of lopsided defeats.
"Any time you start more than five or six sophomores on either side of the ball it's going to be tough," said Walker. "You learn as you go, and that's what we did."
The good thing about those sophomores is they become juniors. And those juniors are ready this time around.
"I think we're more mentally ready," said Walker, a former Southern Oregon University linebacker. "There's that maturity that a year of experience at the varsity level brings. It's going to help all of them."
The Pirates have around 35 to 40 juniors now in the program and return only six or seven seniors, said Walker.
A new season also brings a new offensive approach for Phoenix. Out is the spread offense, in is the split-back veer.
"We're going to run the ball quite a bit and look to control the ball," Walker said.
Leading the run-oriented attack will be one of eight returning offensive starters in Andrew Reynoso. The 5-foot-10, 175-pound junior started the opening game last year but was sidelined after breaking his hand.
"(Reynoso) is the leader," said Walker. "He's a power runner, but he also has some speed back there."
Walker will have plenty of options to join Reynoso in the backfield. Among the deep rotation of running backs will be junior sledgehammer Tyson Morris (5-8, 185) and fellow junior Aaron Pankowski (5-5, 140), who is more a "slicer and dicer," said Walker.
The offensive line is loaded with depth, with guards Travis Treadway (6-0, 220) and Ovie Maheu (5-11, 245) and tackles Ismael Rubio (6-1, 180) and Walker Woodman (6-1, 215). Juniors Richie Davalos (5-7, 230) and Sam Oviedo (5-10, 235) are battling for the starting center position.
When Reynoso decides to air it out, he'll have multiple targets to choose from. Tight ends Jose Deras, a 6-1, 215-pound junior, and Killian Sewell (6-2, 185 senior) were both starters last season.
At wide receiver, junior Zach Kentner (5-9, 165) returns to the starting mix where he will lead the way for a deep, yet unproven group.
The defensive side, where Walker will implement a three-man front, looks to be plenty stout with nine returning starters.
Walker expects a "flying-around type of defense" that will swarm the ball.
He has the linebackers to provide such an attack with the aggressive Morris, Rubio and Deras anchoring.
Along the line, 6-foot, 215-pound senior John Greenman joins fellow senior Alex Davidson (5-11, 195) and Woodman up front.
"Our linebackers are aggressive," said Walker, "and our D-linemen are getting off the ball quick. The front seven is pretty solid for us."
In the secondary, Reynoso, at free safety, and corners Pankowski and Logan LaBelle (5-11, 150, junior) spearhead an experienced group.
"I like what our defense is doing so far," said Walker. "We have a lot of guys to rotate in to keep some fresh legs in the game."
Learning the new systems on both sides of the ball has not hampered the progress of the now-experienced Pirates, said Walker.
"Those kids aren't sophomores any more," said Walker. "They are definitely a more experienced group."
We've had a great camp so far," added Walker. "I'm very pleased with their progress. I like the makeup of this team."
Reach reporter Kevin Goff at 541-776-4483, or email email@example.com