The returning seniors for Coconino football have not seen much disappointment in their careers. A winning history, paired with significant enthusiasm, gives the Panthers hope they will be able to produce another winning season despite graduating several of their impactful senior leaders.
Finishing the first week of spring practice on Friday, Panthers head coach Mike Lapsley said he noticed that even at the early stages of preparation, months away from the first game in September, there is noticeable energy.
“I would say right now the way I feel about it is the excitement level at this point is as great as I’ve ever seen it,” he said.
Coconino boasted an 8-1 overall record last year. The Panthers were undefeated in the shortened 2020 regular season and reached the 4A Conference state tournament quarterfinals before being ousted by Cactus, the eventual title runner-up. It was just one season in a string of successful campaigns from Coconino, which enters the 2021 season as the defending Grand Canyon Region champions.
In three years, the Panthers have gone a combined 24-6.
The incoming seniors have been there every step of the way. Lapsley said he is depending on them to lead the Panthers to continue their streak of winning records.
“They’re a special group. In particular our returning seniors have embraced the system and have tasted the success,” Lapsley said. “The culture around us is great right now.”
“We have a lot of heart, and we know what it looks like to win,” senior Matias Ortiz added.
On the field, they will be tasked with replacing a talented group of 2021 graduates, especially on offense. In particular, the Panthers will be without former running back Zach Bennett, who racked up 1,206 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns in 2020.
Making up for lost production, senior Andy Ruiz said, will be a team effort rather than on the shoulders of one player. He noted that the 2021 Coconino team has more overall speed than he has seen from groups in the past.
“A lot of the young guys are flying around. It’s funny because right now in spring, it’s basics. You want to be taking it a little slower, getting the fundamentals down. But people are flying around and getting things down, doing it really fast, and that’s great to see,” Ruiz said.
And, while it may fall on new players to take the carries Bennett left behind, the offense could also become more balanced. Without a single dominating running back and senior Jonathan Padilla looking ready to be the next starting quarterback, the Panthers could throw the ball more in 2021.
“One of our biggest goals is to keep doing well on the ground, but also get the ball moving in the air a little bit, use our receivers and just do more of that offensively,” Ortiz said.
The players believe little will change at all defensively. Coconino returns much of 2020’s starting group that held every opponent under 28 points in the regular season.
Already knowing who will play where, other than a few open positions, Coconino will already have a well-developed defensive identity heading into the fall.
Rather than teaching the playbook and formations to most of the unit, Lapsley can trust the defense to know his basic tendencies. He and the defensive staff, then, can add more to their play calling and add new elements to the schemes the Panthers have already mastered.
“These guys who are seniors and some of the juniors know the system. They know the concept and their roles, so that does, naturally as a coach, allow you to build off that,” Lapsley said.
Still just a week into the spring season -- which will lead to a traditional summer full of offseason training, 7-on-7 passing leagues, big man challenges, team camp and more, all before a 10-game regular season -- there is still plenty for the Panthers to improve upon.
What the players feel is already at a high level, though, is the group’s fervor to be back on the field.
“That’s something the seniors told us. We just want to keep that energy up, keep the legacy going,” Ortiz said.