PHOENIX — Last season is a distant memory for Phoenix second-year coach Walt Bazylewicz. And for good reason.

PHOENIX — Last season is a distant memory for Phoenix second-year coach Walt Bazylewicz. And for good reason.

The Pirates struggled in Bazylewicz's initial season — falling to fifth place in the six-team Skyline Conference and finishing 2-7 overall.

But with a big, experienced line returning and good potential at the skill positions, the veteran coach expects Phoenix to challenge for the league title in 2008.

"Honestly, I stopped thinking about last year, last year," Bazylewicz says emphatically.

Two players who weren't on the roster last year — seniors James Humphries and John Florey — are a big reason for Bazylewicz's optimism. Humphries and Florey both stand 6-foot-3 and weigh 290 and 275 pounds, respectively. Humphries is a transfer from Cascade Christian, while Florey was a part-time starter as a sophomore for Phoenix but did not play last year.

"(Humphries) is one of the top college recruits in this area," says Bazylewicz. "With his size and strength, he's the type of kid that can take an average line and turn it into a contender."

Inserting Humphries at tackle and with Florey competing as starting center, Bazylewicz is shuffling the offensive line.

Ben Crichton is being moved from tackle to tight end, while Jeff Bohn, a tight end, is taking Crichton's tackle spot. Also, second-team all-Skyline guard Joe Backen is switching to fullback in the Pirates' new-look I-formation offense.

"With Florey and Humphries coming into the mix, we're looking to move people around," says Bazylewicz. "We're probably going to be the biggest team in the league."

Junior Chris Kammel took over at quarterback toward the latter part of the year due to injuries to Neil Emerson. Kammel has worked hard developing his skills in the offseason.

Bazylewicz is enthusiastic about Kammel's potential: "He did well (last year) considering he was a sophomore. He has the mechanics, now it's a matter of becoming more poised and polished. He's a pocket-type passer with a strong arm."

Junior Skyler Reagan gives the Pirates a big-play threat at wide receiver, while Jeff Walker and Crichton are additional pass-catching targets.

"Reagan is a tall kid with speed," says Bazylewicz. "I like the way he battles for the ball. He can get off the ground and go get it."

The tailback duties are expected to be shared by seniors Armondo Ledesma and Wayne Holmes. Ledesma worked his way up from the JV and saw significant playing time by the end of the season. Holmes, the fastest player on the team, had his junior campaign cut short by a knee injury.

"Ledesma is more of a scatback," says Bazylewicz. "He's a cutback runner with excellent lateral quickness and vision. Holmes is more of a straight-ahead runner and has breakaway speed.

"The experience and size of our offensive line gives us the run threat, while our quarterback and receivers give us the perimeter threat. Teams will have to guess if we're going to air it out or run it down their throats."

With Jacob Schauffler leaving the staff to become head coach at Eagle Point High, Bazylewicz is taking over coordinating a defense that gave up an average of more than 30 points a game last season. Part of the reason for the defense's difficulties was dealing with unfavorable field position because of offensive turnovers. Being small and inexperienced was another factor.

"We're going to be a better tackling team," said Bazylewicz. "That's been our emphasis. That's a big part of defense."

Having Humphries as a defensive tackle in the 4-3 alignment should help solve the size dilemma.

"Humphries might be even more effective as a defensive player," says Bazylewicz. "He plays like his hair is on fire. He is relentless, aggressive and just has a nose for the football."

Crichton and Bohn return with experience as defensive ends. Crichton is heady and plays his assignment effectively, while Bohn has the speed to rush the passer or chase down a running back from behind.

Returning starting middle linebacker Alex Machado and outside backer Backen will be joined by junior Chad Daniels to give the Pirates a formidable front seven.

"Backen is a late bloomer," says Bazylewicz. "He moved from JV to varsity last year to become a bona fide athlete. It's a cool transformation to see this kid blossom into a player with great strength and speed."

The defensive secondary should be in good shape with Dom Ralls and Walker back as starters. Ralls has led the squad with interceptions (eight) over the last two seasons. The hard-nosed junior David Kennaley is projected to see playing time.

"Ralls is a spidery kid," says Bazylewicz. "He seems to have two extra arms and two extra legs. Walker is a lock-down corner. He gives us the potential to blitz."

With a diverse offense and potentially better defense, Bazylewicz has high expectations for the Pirates — and a short memory of last season.

Reach reporter Frank Silow at 776-4480, or e-mail fsilow@mailtribune.com