Robert Perea, The Fernley Reporter
After two years of Covid-19 disruptions, including the entire 2020 season postponed until the spring, and several games canceled last year, it looks like it’s back to normal so far for the Fernley Vaqueros.
Unfortunately, normal for a high school football team also means trying to find a way to replace most of its production from players who have graduated, and in that regard, the Vaqueros may be facing a little more than normal.
The Vaqueros open the season with a nonleague game against a league foe, at Lowry Friday night.
When they take the field, they’ll be doing it without the seniors who last year accounted for 1,831 out of their 2,425 rushing yards and 16 of their 20 receptions, as well as the entire starting offensive line and the quarterback who piloted it all.
They are not quite as green on the defensive side, thanks to a couple of sophomores who saw action last year and now step into more prominent roles as juniors.
And, to top it off, they also come in with a new coach, Anfernee Sloan, although former coach Chris Ward is still around as a volunteer assistant.
Despite their massive graduation losses from last year’s team, Sloan hopes that one other thing that remains normal for the Vaqueros is their place somewhere near the top of the Northern 3A standings.
“I think we’re a more complete team than other people are giving us credit for,” Sloan said. “We’re looking to continue to reload. We’re not going to rebuild.”
The Vaqueros competed in a scrimmage last Saturday at McQueen, where they also faced Spanish Springs, two teams that figure to be in the top half of the Northern 5A, and maybe even better than that.
“We lined up and looked good for the most part, and went out and competed,” Sloan said.
He was most impressed with the team’s tackling, saying it was noticeably better than at this time last year, and he said offensively, the young players stepped in and ran the offense well enough that he feels comfortable installing more of the playbook than they’ve worked on so far this summer.
“It was definitely nice to see guys run to the ball and tackle real well,” he said.
Sloan said they also gave several sophomores a chance to see if they are ready for the varsity, and he said they were able to play at a fast pace and showed they belong.
Overall, Sloan said he believes the team is ahead of where it was to start last season.
“We have a good core group of kids that are going to do what we ask them to do,” he said. “The nice thing is they accept their roles, they understand their roles and they’ll be ready to step in and perform when they get their chance.”
One of the team’s biggest concerns through the offseason was replacing the entire offensive line.
Senior Brandon McCullar, who was second team all-league last year as a linebacker, is moving from tight end to right tackle on the offensive side of the ball. He’ll be joined at right guard by sophomore Bryce Holt. Brayden Oberst, who has seen plenty of action as a backup at tackle, will be the center. Toby Gertson will play left guard, and Austin Kollar will be the left tackle.
Senior Gabe Tollestrup steps in at quarterback. He was being given the chance to win the starting quarterback job last year as a junior, when the coaches planned to switch Julian McIntyre to the slot to diversify the offense. But Tollestrup broke his hand in the preseason scrimmage at Fallon and missed most of the year. He returned late in the season and completed all three of his pass attempts and ran seven times for 140 yards.
Sloan said Tollestrup has good command of the offense.
“Gabe is showing signs of being darn good at the position,” Sloan said.
Behind Tollestrup at the running back position, or “B” back as it is called in the flexbone terminology, Sloan said the 1-2 punch of sophomore Marciano Montano and freshman Keeshawn Love gives the Vaqueros one runner who can quickly get going north and south, and another who is good laterally and then heads north and south.
The “B” back position is the one that primarily runs the veer dive as the first option in Fernley’s triple option offense, and the offense has usually worked best in the past when it can effectively run the dive.
“Where that offense is cooking is when that “B” back hammers the ball north and south and then the slots get active,” Sloan said.
Juniors Garrett Harjo and Johnnie Williams will be the top two slot backs, but the Vaqueros rotate their slot backs heavily because of the demands of the position. They not only go in motion on nearly every play, but the one who isn’t the pitch man on the option is responsible for blocking a linebacker.
Tristen Martinez, Gabe Leija and Joey Machado will take their turns spelling Harjo and Williams.
At one outside receiver position, the Vaqueros have an intriguing addition in senior Jake Cumming. He provides a big target at 6-foot-3 with good speed. He is a starting forward on the basketball team and plays center field when he isn’t pitching in baseball. At the other receiver position, Sloan said Ulises Hernandez also has the speed to stretch the field vertically. The third receiver will be Wyatt Green, who played quarterback at the younger levels, and who Sloan said is embracing his new role and who brings a quarterback’s understanding of the offense to that position.
Sloan said the defensive line mix is still up in the air, with several of the offensive linemen among those who are battling to solidify their roles on defense.
At linebacker, McCullar will man the middle, or “mike” linebacker position, and Sloan said he expects McCullar will be a first-team all-league player this year. As the “mike” linebacker, McCullar will be responsible for relaying the play calls to his teammates, making sure they are lined up properly and will direct shifts and changes based on how the opposing offense lines up.
Harjo, who came up to varsity midway through last season, saw plenty of action at linebacker and will be another starter. Sloan said Harjo attacked the weight room in the offseason and the difference is “night and day.”
“It’s a noticeable difference how physical he is and how well he’s moving,” Sloan said.
Marciano, Love, Machado and the other offensive skill position players are among the young players who will split reps at the outside linebacker and secondary spots.
With assistant coaches Tony Wilson and Scott Gillespie having left the program to take administrator positions elsewhere in the district, Sloan has two new assistants, Bert Paulsen and Aaron Moore. Moore was the head freshman coach at Reno High the past five years.
After a possible game against a California school fell through, the Vaqueros scheduled this week’s game against Lowry as a nonleague game. They will face Lowry again in a league game later in the season.
Even though Friday’s game won’t count toward the playoffs, Sloan said it’s no different than if it would have.
“We’re treating it as if it’s a league game and we’re going in there with the expectation to win the football game,” he said.