A little rain on Tuesday couldn't take the smile off Mike Lapsley's face, even as a mass of football players attending spring practice sprinted off the field and into the school.
The Coconino Panthers first-year head coach has a lot to be happy about. Over the last few days, he's seen buy-in, commitment and a buzz about the program. And turnout for spring practices, according to Lapsley, has been at an average of around 40 bodies.
“The numbers are great, the weight room’s been great, and just overall the excitement and attitude’s been real positive," said Lapsley, who was named to the position in November after acting as an assistant coach in the fall under Mike Moran.
The two helped the faltering program make a turnaround in 2018. The Panthers had their best season in six years, finishing at 7-3 and falling just short of making the 4A Conference state playoffs.
With the foundation set, Lapsley sees a group of guys willing to do what it takes to keep building.
“I think last season was kinda bittersweet for some people," Lapsley said. "Obviously, there was change as the program took a step in the right direction, but based on the excitement level we have right now, the guys are certainly looking to have an even more successful season than last year. And I think we are heading down that path.”
Zach Bennett, who played a major role in Coconino's resurgence as the team's stud running back, has been on the field for spring practices. As a sophomore, he ran for 1,210 rushing yards to go with 15 touchdowns via the ground game and one receiving, and was named to the Grand Canyon All-Region Second Team.
Needing a late-season victory to remain high enough in the power rankings for a postseason spot, Coconino fell short of getting an upset over Cactus, 32-21, and the loss kept them out of the playoff bubble.
A new quarterback could be looked to as the piece that puts the Panthers over the top.
Ty Furr led the Panthers as the signal caller last season, finishing his senior campaign with most of the damage done with his legs. He recorded five passing touchdowns to five interceptions, but he ran for nine TDs and 333 yards. Meanwhile, powerhouse back Dawson Buckley, the Arizona Daily Sun's football athlete of the year, played his final season in red and black after giving the team 627 yards of rushing.
There's a long list of potential QBs hungry for the starting position.
“The more competition there, I think that will be a really good thing for our program and will make each of them work harder and really force guys to understand what we are trying to do offensively," Lapsley said. "So it will be interesting to see who fills that role.”
Whoever earns the job will be spending a lot of time with Lapsley, who said he'll continue to do the play-calling for the offense.
“Offensively I will still have the reins, so to speak, but I have got player-position coaches who are really diving in and freeing me up a little bit during practice to allow me to move around and make sure each group is getting the maximum benefit out of the drills and things we are doing," said Lapsley, the third head coach for the Panthers since the 2014 season.
Panthers defensive coordinator Dalton Schwetz, surrounded by players on Tuesday, was also heard saying how glad he was to be on the gridiron no matter the weather conditions.
“I have a lot of great coaches surrounding me,” Lapsley said.