Robert Perea, The Fernley Reporter
When last season ended with the Fernley Vaqueros on the outside of the Northern 3A playoff picture, there was a sense of frustration amid the program knowing that a team that was good enough to put up a challenge with any of the league’s contenders was missing out because of some early season struggles.
But that frustration might just be the key to this season for the Vaqueros.
Fernley will open its season by hosting Bishop (Calif.) Union at 7 p.m. Friday, the first of many games this season in which the Vaqueros are hoping to exact, if not revenge, at least some redemption.
The Vaqueros struggled out of the gate last season, but improved dramatically as the season went on, and they felt like they were much better than a playoff bubble team by the time it was all said and done. But some early struggles, particularly a home loss to Wooster, ended up keeping them home for the postseason.
“Do I felt like we were shortchanged last year? Yeah, but at the same time, kind of happy it happened because it left kind of a bad taste in our mouth,” coach Anfernee Sloan.
That bad taste provided the fuel for the Vaqueros in the offseason, Sloan says.
“They’re more invested, very invested,” he said. “They busted their rears this last year in the weight room.”
With a team that had more sophomores and freshmen on the team than seniors, it wasn’t a lack of talent, but a lack of experience and execution that derailed last season’s hopes.
Now, the Vaqueros return all but two of their offensive skill position players, but the losses they did have are big ones and how well they fill those holes will probably determine how well this season goes.
The biggest loss is quarterback Gabe Tollestrup, who is now fighting for playing time as a freshman at Eastern New Mexico. The Vaqueros will try to replace him with either sophomore Bryce Stephens, who was the JV quarterback last season, or junior Maverick Greenough, who was Tollestrup’s backup last season.
Or, Sloan said, it could be both.
“I think they both have strengths, they both have weaknesses,” Sloan said. “I think they both can be used, that’s the nice thing about it.”
Whichever isn’t at quarterback will be on the field somewhere. Sloan said Stephens will play an outside receiver position of Greenough is at quarterback, while Greenough can play outside receiver and he also gives the Vaqueros the ability to use a tight end.
“The best guy is going to play, but at the same time, the other guy is going to go play somewhere else,” Sloan said.
Whoever is at quarterback will have the running back tag team tandem of Marciano Montano and Keeshawn Love to rely on as the dive back in the option, with Tyler Hatch working his way into that rotation as well.
Ulises Hernandez returns at one outside receiver position, and the slot position is the deepest on the team, with Johnnie Williams and Garrett Harjo leading a group of eight or nine players who will rotate in those two spots.
“Now I’m to the point where we’re so deep and so consistent at slot, I can start taking some of those guys on the outside out, and now I can start throwing those guys on the slot outside,” Sloan said.
Aside from quarterback, the biggest question for the Vaqueros this season is the offensive line, where center Naron Antone heads a group that is bigger, stronger, and Sloan says, more physical than last season despite the personnel losses.
That same group is battling for spots along the defensive line.
“We’re a little bit more stout up front, and it’s letting those dudes in the back run,” Sloan said. “Granted the majority of the guys we graduated last year was up front, unfortunately, but when there’s a will there’s a way, and we always find a way.”
Sophomore Joey Machado, who played safety last season, is noticeably bigger and stronger this season and will be playing the Mike linebacker position. Harjo is another linebacker who keyed the defense last season with his ability to make plays all over the field.
Sloan said he liked the way his defense played in a scrimmage last Friday at Bishop Manogue, where they faced the Miners and Hug, and he said this team is much deeper, more experienced and better understands what to do than last season.
“We’re way further ahead than what we were last year.,” he said. “The pace of play for us is way higher than it was last year.”
They will likely need to be better than last year in order to make some noise in November this year. Although four team left the league due to realignment, Wooster, Hug and North Valleys to the new 5A-III and Dayton to independent status, the remaining eight teams form quite the gauntlet.
“You got to play good football in this conference if you want to make a big-time run in the end,” Sloan said. “It’s a small SEC, man. There’s somebody good every week.”
Sloan merely stifled a sly grin when asked how he would rank the teams in the league, and where he expects the Vaqueros to fit in.
“I believe there’s a solid four or five schools in the conference,” he said. “I like the idea of being the darkhorse.”