'Some growing pains': Chieftains looking to rebuild after challenging spring football season

Steven Bortstein
Farmington Daily Times

SHIPROCK — The challenges of running a football program are numerous, and oftentimes can prove to be overwhelming.

Such was the case throughout much of the shortened 2021 spring football season at Shiprock High School, which despite numerous issues regarding personnel as well as the constantly pressing challenge of mitigating the health and safety of friends, neighbors and loved ones, managed to scratch out three wins from a five-game schedule.

Looking ahead on a fall football schedule which opens on Friday, Aug. 20 on the road against Pojoaque Valley, head coach Anthony Clah is facing some of those same challenges again, as well as a host of new ones.

COVID caused team to dwindle

During the spring season, with players, coaches and families facing myriad constantly changing health protocols as well as curfews which were placed throughout the Navajo Nation, the Chieftains football team was at some points down to a dozen players on the active roster, eventually getting that number up to 17 by the end of the season.

"We lost some key players because families felt it wasn't safe for them to be in close contact. That definitely affected our season and our preparation," Clah said. "We could have had as many players as we wanted, but the numbers just weren't there."

Clah said the challenges made the team stronger, even as they tried to navigate through a schedule which provided for only limited opportunities.

"We're currently still facing that issue now," Clah said. "Players aren't coming out because (coronavirus) is still hanging around and we have lower numbers because some kids might not even be aware that we're starting back up, so we're trying to get the word out."   

Shiprock High receiver Kevin Lee (12) tries to make a catch while being defended by Newcomb's Shaundale Davis (11) on Monday, March 8, 2021, at Chieftain Field in Shiprock.

With victories over Newcomb, Cuba and Crownpoint last season, Clah believes that the Chieftains team learned a few valuable lessons along the way.

"Football is not always a top priority, the kids are the top priority," Clah said. Their health and well being was always paramount to me. Making sure they were mentally healthy and had ways to take out their frustration with what was happening around them. Football helped them stay academically on course, but made it so they could stay on top of their grades."

New challenges for Chieftains football

The challenges for this season are similar. More than just competing for an active roster spot, there's the still lingering issue for players of assuring their families and coaches that they are safe, both on and off the field.

"No matter how well we are following the guidelines, there's going to be hesitations," Clah said.

The Chieftains will bring back four players from last year's roster, to go along with 20 new players, many of whom have never played football at the high school level. 

"We're young, but more than that, we're inexperienced," Clah said. "There just wasn't enough practice or playing time for us to get that experience they could have gained from that season."

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Of the returning starters, Clah pointed out running back/defensive back Jarvis Begay. A third-year starter on the Chieftain roster, the junior is expected to contribute on both sides of the ball.

Jarvis' brother Jaylon is another returning starter who will provide some aggressiveness and experience to a roster that needs both of those attributes.

Melvin Lee is a returning starter this season, who learned quickly in his time with the Chieftains during the shortened campaign.

"(Lee) gained some valuable experience with us after joining us last February," Clah said. "He's got some pretty good size so we're hoping he'll continue to move forward."

Cudia Tihe, another of the returning starters, will play on both sides of the ball, and what he lacks in size, he makes up for with his aggressive style of play and knowledge of the game. 

"(Tihe) has learned a lot about what's expected from him during practice," Clah said. "He's getting really good learning about what we're trying to do on the field."

Playing in District 1-4A with the likes of Aztec, Gallup, Bloomfield and Kirtland Central, the main concern for Clah is that his team come out competitive in games where they're likely to be overmatched from a personnel perspective.

"It's a pretty good schedule and there's going to be some growing pains for us," Clah admitted. "The experience level isn't going to be there, but we are hoping the willingness to work hard and pursue hard is going to be there."

Shiprock Chieftains 2021 Schedule

(All games on Friday)

Aug. 20 — Shiprock at Pojoaque Valley

Aug. 27 — Crownpoint at Shiprock

Sept. 3 — Shiprock at Monument Valley

Sept. 10 — Bernalillo at Shiprock

Sept. 17 — Taos vs. Shiprock

Sept. 24 — Shiprock at Newcomb

Oct. 1 — Aztec at Shiprock

Oct. 8 — Bloomfield at Shiprock

Oct. 15 — Shiprock at Kirtland Central

Oct. 29 — Shiprock at Gallup

Steve Bortstein can be reached via email at SBortstein@Gannett.com, via Twitter @DTSBortstein or on the phone at (505) 635-2680.