Chieftains roster includes 19 seniors, 11 more than the team had last year
SHIPROCK — The Chieftains football team is in a position to capitalize on the string of recent area high school reclassifications.
Shiprock will not have mandatory games against Bloomfield or Kirtland Central anymore, which is good news for a Chieftains program that is 0-6 against KC and Bloomfield since 2012. The path to a District 1-4A title got a lot clearer for the Chieftains after those teams moved up a class.
Only Navajo Prep, Thoreau and Wingate — three teams Shiprock defeated last season — stand in the Chieftains' way this year as district opponents. Second-year coach Eric Stovall said his team has a number of goals including winning a district title.
He said accomplishing those goals starts with hard work in training camp.
"For us, obviously, we still have to do our work to get things done," Stovall said. "To be honest, I think we've had a better summer than last year. It's paid off tremendously — not just athletically for us, but also the team unity and the team camaraderie we've built. This is a close-knit group that puts the team before themselves, and I really like that."
The Chieftains and Stovall had to take some time last summer to get acclimated to each other.
The standard growing pains that come with new coaching hires, such as changing the culture and instilling new offensive and defensive systems, wasn't on the off-season to-do list this year. As a result, the team has been able to dive head first into preparations for Week 1.
The Chieftains lost eight seniors but have 19 returning, so they have hopes of wrangling a District 1-4A championship and hosting a playoff game at the end of this season. Stovall said the team's defensive unit looks capable of driving the team toward those aspirations.
Stovall and first-year defensive coordinator Ronnie Armenta favor an even defensive front as opposed to the odd-man front the coaches leaned on last year. Schematically, Stovall believes this adjustment will have a positive domino effect on the rest of the defense.
"We have good strength up front in our down linemen, and I think our linebackers are very smart and very intuitive," Stovall said. "I think we have some good leadership in the secondary, too."
Senior middle linebacker Darren Harrison, who will replace Zander Dale as the starting center, said he thinks the defensive unit is going to do a solid job of defending the pass.
"I think we've got the passing game down, from the (defensive) line to the cornerbacks," Harrison said. "We've been working hard on it all summer. We just have to implement some things into stopping the running game to make it the best all-around defense we can."
On the other side of the ball, the Chieftains won't have a shortage of offensive leaders capable of punching the ball into the end zone, according to Stovall.
Running back Quaid Shorty played a vital role for the Chieftains' offense last year, which scored 30-plus points on four occasions. He showed quick cuts and explosion when he touched the ball, as both a running back and a replacement quarterback when the recently graduated Arjay Miller suffered a mid-season ankle injury.
Shorty will carry the ball behind an offensive line made up of all seniors — Harrison, Darnel Whitehorse, Zephaniah Hadley, Chance Harvey and Deandre Bidtah.
The quarterback position for the Chieftains is currently in flux. Stovall said he's got three players vying for the job, including junior Rhakeem Anagale.
Top receiver Steve Lara gave Anagale a vote of confidence, but also said he thinks the offense will be in good hands no matter who is under center.
"I trust Rock, we've been working pretty good together this summer," Lara said, referring to Anagale. "They're all looking pretty good. No matter who it is, I'm just gonna go and try and catch balls and help my brothers."
Shorty said that as long as the players keep supporting each other, the Chieftains' goals for 2016 are well within reach.
"A lot of encouragement from the upperclassmen to the underclassmen, and the underclassmen stepping up is what it's gonna take to win a lot of games," Shorty said. "Just a lot of encouragement and trust in each other."
Jake Newby covers sports for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577.