SHIPROCK — If Shiprock is going to capture its first football district championship since 2010, it's going to need Steve Lara to keep doing what he's done through the Chieftains' first eight games of this season.
Lara, the team's leading rusher, has come out of nowhere to become the most reliable weapon on Shiprock's offense after spending all of training camp working as a tight end.
Last week, in a dominant 50-0 win over Wingate, the senior tallied more than 120 yards on the ground while finding the end zone three times. Chiefs coach Eric Stovall said the game plan going into that contest was to feed Lara throughout.
"We're a spread team that likes to pass, but we don't want to be one-dimensional," Stovall said. "So that was the game plan, to run the ball effectively so we'd be able to pass the ball effectively."
Stovall said he thought Lara, one of four team captains, was an ideal fit at tight end in his spread offense. But after suffering a 42-0 letdown loss to Socorro in the season opener, Stovall decided it was time to see what one of his most dynamic athletes could offer as a member of the backfield.
"What we started seeing after the first game with Socorro, in the next week of practice, was the ability, the speed and the explosiveness (from Lara)," Stovall said. "The ability to make great cuts, have great hips and make people miss. We thought, 'Now's the time to make a change.'
Luckily for Shiprock (5-3, 1-0 District 1-4A), Tirus Newton has stepped into Lara's old role as a pass-catching tight end, and Newton's done well there with receiving touchdowns in each of the last two games.
As for Lara, he's already totaled 700 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns through eight games, making the position switch a smash success.
But Lara provides his team with more than just on-field production. Described as a "team-first" player by his coach, Lara has made a concerted effort to keep his teammates pumped up during games.
Stovall said he has a great relationship with his offensive linemen.
"What he does is, he motivates our offensive line," Stovall said. "He motivates them with big chunks of yardage and gives them praise to show them that they're doing their jobs effectively. And the other thing that helps is, he keeps them understanding, 'Hey, get to the next level, don't stop in the trenches, keep working hard and moving your feet.'"
Lara, who also plays safety on defense, was quick to deflect credit when discussing his monster game against Wingate, instead praising his linemen for keeping the Bears' defensive line neutralized.
"Our linemen stepped up that game. They really pushed it," Lara said. "And that helped me get up to the secondary and do the best I could do there."
Lara said he thinks he has so much chemistry with his line because they're all around the same age and they've all known each other for years. He said it's why he's not afraid to say something to light a fire under them if necessary.
"I feel pretty comfortable with them, 'cause most of them are seniors and I kind of grew up with them, playing football," Lara said. "So it's kind of like talking to your brothers."
Shiprock heads to Thoreau on Friday and then closes the season at home against Navajo Prep. Lara said he's focused on finishing the season on a high note, both for his teammates, and for himself.
"It's my senior year and I don't know if I'll play football again," Lara said. "So it's just about laying it all on the line so hopefully we can get to the playoffs."
Jake Newby covers sports for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577.
A closer look: Steve Lara
1. Favorite team?
"San Diego Chargers."
2. Favorite athletes?
"Keenan Allen and Odell Beckham Jr."
3. Favorite food?
4. Favorite thing to watch on Netflix?
5. Favorite subject in school?
6. Least favorite subject?
7. Biggest fear?
"I don't know, I have a lot of them."
8. Do you play any other sports?
"I run track."
9. What is the first thing you would do with $1 million?
"Take my mom out."
10. Do you have any pre-game rituals?
"Not really, just eat with the team."