The Coconino Panthers are not too concerned with where they play. They care more about how they play once the season gets underway.
“Our motto is we’ll play you anywhere, anytime, and I think that’s the attitude we’ll be taking into the season," Panthers head coach Mike Lapsley said. "Obviously, we love playing at home, but we’ll take that approach this year, and I think the guys are actually excited to show up at someone else’s house and beat them.”
During their resurgent season last fall, the Panthers went 4-1 at home in Cromer Stadium, including a season-ending victory over crosstown rival Flagstaff. The only team to hand Coconino a loss on its own turf was Bradshaw Mountain, which halted the Panthers' four-game win streak that opened the 2018 season.
Coconino upset some big teams at home to start last year's schedule, surging by Thunderbird, 42-28, to open and outlasting Mingus Union, 42-40, three games later. In between the significant victories that demonstrated Coconino's new-found success, the team took care of business against weaker opponents on the road, blanking both Carl Hayden and Cortez while compiling 83 combined total points across the games.
In years past, the Panthers were typically the team on the losing side of routs. So they know that if success is to be continued, they have to accept the challenges this year's reversed schedule will throw at them.
Seeking to avenge last year's loss, Thunderbird will host Coconino for the season-opening game for each program on Friday, Aug. 30. The Panthers have not started so late into August since 2013, when they took a loss to the Lake Havasu Knights.
After opening on the road, Coconino plays back-to-back home games against Carl Hayden and Cortez, and then face the road tests taking on two of the Grand Canyon Region's toughest teams over the years, Mingus Union and Bradshaw Mountain.
The Panthers will be in the Walkup Skydome in November to end the season against the Flagstaff Eagles. The two rivals have not met in November since 2013, normally wrapping up the regular season in the last week of October.
Lapsley, in his first-ever role as a head coach of a varsity program, said his squad has been anticipating getting back out on the gridiron for games since basically the end of last season. His players have demonstrated to him during the course of spring practices that they are ready for action, no matter the location.
And Lapsley also says the fun the team is having, the positive environment they are creating, could help ease the grind of the tough schedule.
“They are hungry, and so we are trying to keep that hunger and that fire alive. Even stemming off of last year, I don’t feel like a lot of these guys ever wanted to stop, you know, they really did want to continue. That’s a really positive thing," Lapsley said.
Lapsley is anticipating some good home games, including hosting Prescott. Coconino can use home-field advantage to avenge possibly a loss to another tough team, Cactus, which ultimately kept the Panthers from reaching the postseason last year.
“We have got to be able to take advantage of those opportunities,” the first-year head coach said.
Cactus will be on the back end of a second Coconino two-game homestand. The Panthers start the late-season homestand with Lee Williams, which Coconino beat 34-18 in 2018.
Even with some easier opponents at home, Lapsley knows his team needs to show improvements with each new week and can't let rankings and past results dictate his players' attitudes.
"We can’t take anybody lightly if we are playing them at home,” he said.
Lapsley said he's happy with the offseason work his team has been putting in as the team works on fundamentals, weightlifting, and speed and agility work. "It's been a real pleasure," he said. ... Lapsley said his coaching staff and the team have been also working on pace at practice, working fast at times and then slowing down to make sure everyone is one the same page. ... Retention rate for incoming seniors has been outstanding, Lapsley said. “We have a ton of seniors who didn’t end up playing last year, but because of the success and the positive culture in and around the school for the program, they are coming back in numbers now. I don’t know what our final senior number will be, but it might be twice what we had last year.”