Dreams of playing in late November begin in the weight room in the dog days of summer.
For a Mancos football program coming off its best season in school history, a new season brings a fresh start and high expectations. The Jays restocked the lineup after a large senior class departed this past spring, and with that, a new Bluejays group will establish its identity this fall.
Mancos finished 10-1 last year, winning its first league title in three years while making the program’s first state semifinal, a victory over league-rival Sanford. It then played in the program’s first title game against Haxtun.
The Jays won’t have to wait long for their shot at revenge – a meeting against Haxtun on Saturday, Sept. 17, looms large on a very challenging Mancos schedule. It’s all a part of a brutal first month of the season that head coach Josh Gardner hopes will give his program plenty of chances to experience top-tier competition.
“Our mentality is, if you want to be playing championship-level football, you need to play great programs,” said Gardner. “We want our kids to be in a competitive environment on a weekly basis.”
Mancos opens its schedule on Friday, Aug. 26, at 4 p.m. against New Mexico small-school powerhouse Melrose, before meetings with Monticello – which has joined the eight-man ranks – and playoff-regular Merino, before their title-game rematch against the Bulldogs.
“We’ve got a tremendous amount of team speed this year,” said Gardner, “and we’re hoping that helps us play aggressively on both sides of the ball.”
For the Jays, familiar faces take the helm of the program, albeit some in elevated roles this season.
“There have been a number of guys who have stepped up into leadership roles,” added Gardner. “We’ve seen (junior) Kail Wayman and (senior) Kenyon Rosales really take on vocal leadership roles for us this year.”
For a Bluejays offense that relied heavily on the ground game to overpower teams in recent years, the graduation of the offensive line presents the opportunity for the Jays to develop some players who will see significant varsity action this year.
“We’re really focused on getting our footwork down, and so far they’ve shown that they’ve been able to do that,” said Gardner of his O-line. Sophomore Kaiden Wyatt and freshman Adam Martinez look to join Rosales as key cogs in the front four, joining senior center Lane Greenlee in a formidable front.
The group hopes to open holes for a variety of Bluejays backs, with Wayman serving as the heir-apparent to all-state rusher Chase Moore. Meanwhile, other backs, including juniors Broc Imel and Levi Martin, look to help shoulder the load in the Bluejays ground game.
“We feel like our speed out of the backfield is going to make us even more dynamic,” said Gardner, “and really offer us a different look compared to past seasons.”
Meanwhile, the Bluejays have continuity from the signal-caller position, where senior Ayden Mathews will look to enjoy another solid year after demonstrating his capacity to beat teams with his arm and his legs last campaign.
“He does so many things well – a real student of the game,” said Gardner of his quarterback. “He’s coachable, has a good attitude, takes care of his work in the classroom, so he’s a leader in so many ways – and he just keeps getting better.”
On the other side of the ball, Mathews will help spearhead an aggressive Bluejays secondary, joined by junior Chris Medina, and several players who will find a significant bump in playing time this year. Sophomore Brandon Vannest looks to factor into a dangerous defensive line that will look to give opposing quarterbacks fits.
Mancos will see its challenging nonconference schedule complemented by playing in one of the toughest leagues in eight-man football. The Mountain League schedule begins on Friday, Sept. 30, with a home game against Sargent, before a titanic home clash with Dove Creek the following weekend – a matchup that should factor prominently in determining a league champion.
The Bluejays will travel to Dolores, who joins the Mountain League this season, along with a regular season-capping trip to Sanford on Oct. 21 that will lead into the eight-man postseason. The Bluejays home opener on Friday, Sept. 2, against Monticello will be available for fans to follow on radio station 98.7 FM KRTZ and on krtzradio.com.