Commentary: Football scene will have altered look in 2018

Matt Hollinshead,
Piedra Vista quarterback Cameron Swarts fires a pass down the right sideline against Cleveland during a District 1-6A game onOct. 20 at Hutchison Stadium. PV will drop back down to Class 5A for 2018.

FARMINGTON — With the 2018 campaign just six weeks away, the layout of San Juan County’s football scene will have an altered look this year.

Here’s a breakdown of what to expect from each area squad in its respective district and which teams could surprise people.

District 1-5A (Farmington, Highland, Miyamura, Piedra Vista)

Farmington lost multiple key players from the squad that last year made a run to the 5A state semifinals, including wide receivers Jacob Brown and Ethan Todd, quarterback Isaiah Jaramillo and running back Axel Fowler. But the Scorpions still have some other key weapons, including wide receivers Kale Lucas and Juan Medrano and running back/slot receiver Johnny Shuttleworth.

Lucas, Medrano and Shuttleworth, who represented the second unit for Farmington’s loaded receiving corps in 2017, combined for 1,133 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Shuttleworth also contributed to the ground game last fall, running for 571 yards and three scores.

Lucas, Ian Kee and Vince Castelli will spend the rest of summer training camp battling for the starting quarterback position, which coach Jeff Dalton even mentioned during a recent seven-on-seven session may not be decided by opening weekend.

If Kee or Castelli lands the job, that new face under center will inherit a group that experienced a deep playoff run.

FHS has enough talent back to fight for a district title, but how deep into the playoffs it can go remains a mystery.

Meanwhile, Piedra Vista drops back down to 5A after spending the previous two years in arguably the toughest district in the Land of Enchantment: District 1-6A, which included powers Rio Rancho and Cleveland.

The Panthers showed they could flex their muscles against the best, striking first early and getting some key stops early. That, combined with its two district road wins over Cibola and Volcano Vista, earned them a 6A state playoff berth.

If that experience didn’t make PV even more battle tested, what will? And with some key players like quarterback Cameron Swarts and running back McKay Cook back for 2018, expect another strong campaign in the Panthers’ return to Class 5A. Don’t forget, PV won 16 combined games competing in 5A back in 2014 and 2015.

The crosstown rivalry between FHS and PV should be fun this fall.

District 1-4A (Aztec, Bloomfield, Gallup, Kirtland Central)

There should be more parity, now that this group doesn’t have to deal with Miyamura and Farmington. But is also presents at least one team with a greater chance to recover from a difficult 2017 season.

Because Aztec and Kirtland Central both lost key players from 2017, this could be Bloomfield’s turn to make some noise. The Bobcats have quarterback Vincent Marquez, who threw for 893 passing yards in 2017, back for two more years.

However, Bloomfield must produce more in the ground game after averaging just 70.9 total rushing yards per game in 2017, especially early in ballegames. That’ll help the passing game settle in sooner and not be rushed trying to move the chains.

District 5-3A (Cuba, Hope Christian, Laguna Acoma, Navajo Prep)

Similar to when it competed in Class 4A, Navajo Prep will again have a chance at a district title because it went from one weak district to another in its drop down to 3A.

Coach Roderick Denetso returns for his second stint as the Eagles' football coach. He led Prep to three straight playoff appearances from 2012 through 2014, but he took the next two seasons off to spend more time with family and to obtain a master’s degree.

However, he returned to the sideline as Shiprock’s wide receivers/special teams coach in 2017.

Now that Shiprock will compete as an independent team in football, Prep should have an easier path toward regaining its status as a district champion.

District 1-2A (Dulce, Escalante, McCurdy, Mission Achievement and Success, Newcomb, Questa)

Newcomb is built to win now, coming off back-to-back playoff appearances and with multiple key returners entering their sophomore and junior seasons.

The Skyhawks have coach Eric Stovall running the show after he led Shiprock to back-to-back district titles in 2016 and 2017.

However, Newcomb have an immediate challenge ahead in challenging 2A state runner-up Escalante, which won state titles in 2012, 2014 and 2015.

Independent competition

Shiprock will be intriguing to watch in 2018 under new coach Michael Switch.

Switch, who previously served as co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma City football power Millwood High from 2001 to 2005, said on June 27 he wants Shiprock to pound out more of those 4- or 5-yard runs on first and second down to help set up quick passing routes on the outside corners.

It remains to be seen how that will turn out with the Chieftains playing a tougher schedule against such foes as St. Michael’s, Albuquerque and Rio Grande. Those are larger programs with physically bigger and stronger players.

Getting a victory, or at least playing in a tight battle, against such opponents can do wonders for Shiprock’s development in the long run. But it could be a long, psychologically draining season for the Chieftains as they struggle to withstand bigger defenders at the line of scrimmage.

Matt Hollinshead covers sports for the Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577.