Every high school team considers August the time for a fresh start. The record is 0-0. The helmets are pristine and unscuffed. It’s time to create a new identity.
But this year’s Palm Desert team is taking that to an extreme level.
Last year, the Aztecs finished second in the DVL, ended their decade-long drought against rival La Quinta, and won two playoff games to make it all the way to the semifinals. A great season like that should lead to some nice momentum heading into the new year, but there’s one small problem.
A remarkable 21 of 22 starters from that team graduated, and longtime coach Pat Blackburn also retired. Talk about a fresh start.
“It’s an unusual situation, true, but it’s still football,” new coach Shane McComb said. “Football is fun. Season’s about to start. We got kids out here that are coachable and that are buying in.”
Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to have some studs coming back, but in a way, it might be a perfect situation for a new coach like the 28-year-old McComb. Everyone is fighting for playing time, and he won’t have to deal with returning starters feeling entitled to a position.
“Basically I’m just setting expectations and running the ship the way I think it should be run and we’re taking it from there,” McComb said. “We’re figuring out who we need to get the ball to, and figuring out who we’re going to put where defensively. We’re figuring it out pretty quick.”
Brooks Stephenson, a wideout and safety who played last year as a sophomore, is the lone returner from last year’s starting lineup. He said that despite all the new faces in the starting lineup and on the sidelines, he feels like the team is coming together nicely.
“We’re connecting pretty good, and coach is coming in with a strong attitude and we all really like it,” Stephenson said. “I’ve had some experience at the varsity level, but we’re all young out here, everyone is filling in their job and we’re feeling pretty good.”
A lot of the team’s personnel falls into the category of unknown commodities. In some cases, players are still fighting for starting spots, but there are a few names that Aztec fans and valley opponents should get to know.
Jedediah Jackson, or J.J., a running back and linebacker, will be counted on to provide some stability. He’s said he’s excited about the chance to play and also that the team as a whole is fueled by the natural doubters that emerge when a team graduates so many players.
“We have some big shoes to fill, and the truth is it can be a little nerve-wracking, but I’m ready and so is everyone else,” Jackson said. “The fact that people are probably doubting us, honestly, I think it’s just making us work harder. It gives us another reason to show out.”
Jackson will be a bruising ball-carrier, but the more elusive back is a senior who didn’t play football the past two years: Adrian Lopez.
Coach McComb describes Lopez as a wiry guy who doesn’t run like he’s all skin and bones. Lopez, in turn, complimented McComb.
“He’s really come in and taken authority, which is good since he’s new,” Lopez said. “You gotta make a big first impression and he’s doing well, we like him a lot. We feel like underdogs a little bit, but we’re progressing pretty good, I think. I want to fight for my position, and everyone else does, too. It’s fun.”
As far as the quarterback position, junior Matthew Fitzgerald returns after getting a few snaps during the last season after transferring from Xavier Prep, where he had a fine freshman season. Sophomore quarterback Carter Stokes will also be part of the plan, according to McComb, who said that he has confidence in both and that between the two of them, they’ve got a formidable combo.
The coaching transition wasn’t too much of a shock to the returning players’ system. Retired head coach Blackburn is still part of the team as an assistant coach, and the players said practices and schemes aren’t a whole lot different.
“It’s been a really fluid transition, actually,” Tyler Lieberman said. “He’s a good coach who obviously knows what he’s doing and he’s teaching us a lot, especially with us linebackers. Also, I take a lot from last year’s seniors. They really taught us what to do, and we’re just trying to do what they did.”
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Looking deeper at the Aztecs
Coach: Shane McComb (first year)
Last league title: 2013 (shared)
2015 record: 8-5 (5-1 in DVL), lost in semifinals of CIF SS Eastern Division playoffs to Serrano, 47-34
Returning starters: Zero on offense, one on defense
Biggest personnel loss: Where do you begin? So many talented seniors led a successful 2015 for the Aztecs, Beau Berryhill, Joe Caridi, Will Emmett — to name a few. I guess the biggest personnel loss would be the entire offense.
Biggest question: New coach, new team. The 2016 Aztecs are nothing but questions, but don’t count them out. Just because you don’t know the names of the newcomers doesn’t mean they can’t play. How quickly the Aztecs can come together and figure out who belongs where in the playing rotations will go a long way toward success. The confidence is high at practice, but there is always that seed of doubt until you see how the players handle the bright lights of a real game.
Breakout player: Certainly a lot of opportunity for breakout years from any number of Aztecs, but the first words out of coach McComb’s mouth when asked what names we should get to know were Jedediah Jackson. The running back and linebacker is a strong smart player and ready to become a recognizable force in valley football.
Coach quote: “Basically I’m just setting expectations and running the ship the way I think it should be run and we’re taking it from there. We’re figuring out who we need to get the ball to, and figuring out who we’re going to put where defensively. We’re figuring it out pretty quick.”
Projected record: 5-5
Aug. 26 …Desert Hot Springs
Sept. 2 … Coachella Valley
Sept. 9 … at Yucaipa
Sept. 15 … at Rancho Mirage (Thur.)
Sept. 23 .. at Xavier Prep*
Sept. 30 … at Shadow Hills*
Oct. 14 … Palm Springs*
Oct. 21 … La Quinta*
Oct. 28 … at Cathedral City*
Nov. 4 … Indio*
*indicates Desert Valley League game