The Greater Spokane League 3A seems to be a bit more open this season than in the recent past.
“Last year I told myself the same thing and Mt. Spokane kicked our butt,” Shadle Park coach Jim Mace said at practice in the school gym last week due to poor air quality over the region.
“They’re on the pedestal.”
While Mt. Spokane seems poised for another strong season, the somewhat overlooked Shadle Park team boasts 30 returning lettermen and 11 starters, including its all-league combo of quarterback Carson Doyle and junior wide receiver Xavier Atkins.
That has team leaders envisioning a chance to compete for the top of the pack.
“It’s definitely the goal – to win 3A,” Doyle said.
“I’m willing to bet we’ll be first this year,” Atkins added.
“I think that this year will definitely be different than the games we’ve played (against Mt. Spokane) the past couple of years,” Atkins said. “They’ve come out on top last year and a few years before that, but I hope they aren’t coming into this game thinking that they’re just going to beat us and wipe the floor with us, because that’s not going to happen.”
Doyle, a four-year starter, said the idea that Shadle Park doesn’t get as much attention as Mt. Spokane provides the Highlanders with a little extra motivation.
“A lot of teams overlook us and think that we’re a smaller team or whatever,” Doyle continued. “We just have to come out and do what we can do.”
Mace admitted that he and his coaching staff have to be creative with their motivation tactics to get their players to see Mt. Spokane eye to eye.
“That’s one of the things we train for all the time,” he explained. “One of the things we talk about with the kids is they might be better athletes with their size and weight, and bigger than us, so how do we beat that? It’s hard work.
“I feel like the kids know there’s an opportunity.”
With just four teams in 3A, it makes for a long preseason and places so much emphasis on those three league games.
“It’s a weird way the season sets up,” Mace admitted. “You play all these games that technically don’t count against your record. It’s only what you do (in league) that we’ve really bought into.
“If we’re not winning and being competitive (outside of league), by the time we get to Mt. Spokane our confidence will be shot.”
But as has become the norm for the Highlanders, it always comes back to the Wildcats.
“They’re always our focus,” Mace explained. “Even our play design. ‘How does it work against this team? Great.’ But will it work against Mt. Spokane?”
As for his own team, Mace lost the school’s all-time leading rusher, Xavier Wicks, but benefits from having his starting quarterback and favorite receiver back.
Mace admits there were times last season where he’d wonder about a play call and would just feed it to Wicks, knowing there would be positive yardage. He doesn’t have a 35-carry-per-game back on the roster this season, so he’s looking to spread the work load out more, including having his QB do a little more running.
Doyle isn’t the prototypical high school quarterback. Listed at 5-foot-10 and 170, he’s more compact and stockier than a lot of players who will takes snaps under center this season.
“Carson might not look like a great athlete at first but he’s sneaky fast, great first step on the field,” Mace explained. “This year I just said to him, ‘I’m going to call some plays for you to specifically run to get you going.’ He seemed to be excited.
“I think he’d like throw for 300 (yards) versus run for 300, but he wants to win.”
When Doyle is throwing, it will most likely be headed toward Atkins, who says the pair have built a rapport over the past couple of years.
“It definitely comes through practice,” Atkins explained. “My freshman year, when I caught my first passes from Carson, it was a lot different from my freshman quarterback. He was obviously at a completely different level.
“I’ve caught probably thousands of passes from (Doyle) so now it’s natural.”
And even though both players were all-league last year, Atkins said there is always room for improvement.
“We just push each other to keep working to be better than we are already,” he said. “We don’t have the mindset that we think we’re better than everybody else, but we’re going to push to be the best out of anybody.”
Mace said that drive is part of what makes Atkins a special player.
“He’s probably the one kid on our team that the potential to be a Division I athlete,” Mace said. “We’re working with him to fine tune things. Last year he’d run past a kid and ‘high-point’ naturally. But sometimes he’s not as good mechanically. So we’re trying to dial him in on that, and he’s responded pretty well.”
One of the big things Mace likes about his quarterback is his natural leadership abilities. Doyle is more soft-spoken, but does the little things to get the most out of his teammates.
“Throughout the summer and springtime – even now – he finds ways to get the guys to go out to Merkel (Sports Fields) or somewhere and do 7-on-7 on his own accord – and he’s been doing that since he was a sophomore. That says something about him,” Mace said.
“He’s one of the first guys in the weight room and he’s always helping the younger guys get better,” he continued. “If he can get the team behind him and working together we’ll be a better functioning unit. He’s been really good at that.”
Doyle, whose dad and uncle are assistant coaches and whose freshman brother Logan will join him on varsity, acknowledged that as a senior and returning starter he will need to step up as a captain on the field.
“Last year I had somewhat of a leadership role, but this year it’ll be more,” he said. “I’m quiet, but I have a good connection with our players. I can get on them when I need to, and give out compliments when they need them.”
Sharing the load in the backfield will be Klouse Albers, who also placed fourth at state in wrestling last season. The senior was all-league last year as a utility back, spelling Wicks on occasion, and will be featured more in the upcoming campaign.
Mace thinks of Albers as something of a secret weapon.
“Pound-for-pound, he’s an incredible athlete,” the coach said. “He’s all over the place.
“We had a rule last year on offense: When he’s off the field nothing good happens. When he’s on it, it does.”
Mace acknowledged that with all the returning players, his squad has a chance to make some noise.
“I think that this is a big year for us and the program in general,” he said. “We have kids that can get the job done, and have gotten the job done (in the past). We feel like we’re ahead and fine-tuning. But it’s the playbook, and it’s understanding everything.
“We had a great summer. We feel like the kids are ready to go.”
North Central (2-7, 1-2): Sean Garvey moves up from assistant to head coach for the 2018 season. The Indians lost 16 starters to graduation, including most of their offensive line, so Garvey hopes the new players jell quickly. They’ll be blocking for senior QB Carter Delp and junior RB Kade Garvey, who will also play linebacker. Leading the defense is all-league first team DB junior Ian Hicks, junior LB Evan Bertolf-Linn and senior D-lineman Tyler Orvik. “We’re a young team on the average but we have some experienced juniors who we’ll lean on,” Garvey said. A key newcomer is senior WR/DB Justyn Stultz, a transfer from Texas.
Rogers (2-7, 0-3): The Pirates will start six players on both sides of the ball. On offense, Rogers boasts depth and experience at the RB position with honorable mention all-league senior Tre Phillips and at tight end with first-team all-league senior Kadyn Bland. Sophomore QB Casey Jeske takes over with an older but inexperienced OL. Defensively, the Pirates improved their secondary and have most of their front seven returning, including linemen Nathaniel Tran and Duante DeMarce. Rogers will look to manage the clock and keep possession of the football, trying to shorten games and limit the possessions of opposing offenses. “We want to be an old-school football team and be physical for four quarters,” said first-year coach David Chambless.